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Nationals' prospect A.J. Cole bulking up and waiting for opportunity

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Washington Nationals' prospect A.J. Cole has a birthday coming up in January. He'll turn 24 this winter. It may seem like he's been around forever, but the right-hander is still a young up-and-comer. What's in store for Cole in 2016 in D.C.?

Photo © Ed Chigliak, @federalbaseball
Photo © Ed Chigliak, @federalbaseball

It just feels like A.J. Cole has been around forever. Drafted as an 18-year-old out Oviedo High School in Florida and given a $2M signing bonus as a fourth-round pick, Cole was traded to the Oakland A's in 2011, reacquired in 2013 and this past April, the soon-to-turn 24-year-old right-hander made his MLB debut. It didn't exactly go as planned.

Cole allowed nine hits and nine runs, four earned in two innings of work before he was lifted from the outing.

"Everything seemed to be middle up," now-former Nats' skipper Matt Williams said after the outing.

"It was just one of things things that there was a glitch and I couldn't figure it out at first. I got it down and I really feel like from here on it will all be good." -A.J. Cole on mechanical adjustment he made last season

"Ball wasn't sinking. They were aggressive early, hitting the fastball and he didn't get to his secondary pitches. We tried to get him as far as we could, but after the second inning we just couldn't go any further with it."

Williams was asked what the righty could take from the outing?

"First time in the big leagues and it doesn't go your way, it's not fun," Williams said, "but it lets him know that he's got to throw the ball where he wants to. He's got to change speeds. He's got to throw strikes. He's got to throw the ball down in the strike zone."

"It's not the debut he wanted by any stretch, but it's a good learning experience too," he added.

Cole was sent down to Triple-A Syracuse after his debut, and struggled with the Nats' top minor league affiliate, with a 4.11 ERA and a .200 BAA in 15 ⅓ IP in three May outings.

He returned to make two relief outings for the Nationals that month, giving up five hits and two runs in 7 ⅓ IP in long relief.

Cole put up a 6.48 ERA and .286 BAA in 16 ⅔ innings in five games and four starts in June, and a 4.12 ERA and .219 BAA in four games, three starts and 19 ⅔ IP in July. He finished strong, however.

In six August starts, Cole was (4-1), after going (1-5) over the previous four months, with a 1.15 ERA and a .183 BAA in 39 IP.

When he was called back up to the majors in September, Cole talked about a mechanical adjustment he made helping to turn things around.

"I saw film and I noticed my stride wasn't the same," Cole told MASNSports.com's Byron Kerr:

"After I told them, they agreed. I kind of fixed that on my own. I saw the film and said 'Hey, this isn't what I was last year. Something feels different, what was wrong.' Watched the film, figured that out."

"The stride's basically the timing with my arm and everything so when I had a shorter stride the arm was either too quick or it was behind trying to be on the same timing as the leg and the landing and everything like that."

"It was just one of things things that there was a glitch and I couldn't figure it out at first," Cole told reporters this past weekend.

"I got it down and I really feel like from here on it will all be good."

Cole, A.J.

This winter, the 6'5'', 200 lb right-hander said he was determined to bulk up as he prepares for the 2016 campaign.

"Trying to put on a lot of weight, or not a lot, but more and get ready for Spring Training," he explained.

The goal in adding weight?

"Just to keep up stamina and everything like that," Cole said, "because a lot of times you drop weight once you go into Spring Training, so I just wanted to get a little more weight and help the body out a little bit."

Asked if he thought the additional weight could help him add velocity, Cole said he thought it could go either way.

"He's got, for me, he's got the ultimate pitcher's body. It's long and then he gets out front and the ball explodes out of his hand." -Matt Williams on A.J. Cole, Spring 2014

"You never know," he said. "Sometimes it can help somebody gain velocity, sometimes you heard it's had people lose velocity. But at the same time I'm not just putting on the weight, like bad weight or anything like that.

"I'm always keeping the stretching and mobility and everything like that."

Getting his debut out of the way, regardless of how it went, was a good thing, Cole said.

"The way I look at it is it's good to get up there and get a feel for it. I went down -- I had a couple hard outings up there and you get to see what you need to work on. You get a little taste of it and say, 'Hey, okay, now I need to work on this.' Go down, you get to work on it, come back up, get a little taste of it more, say, 'Oh, did it work?' And it's just nice being able to get a feel for it and then work on everything."

With Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister departing this winter, there are opportunities in the majors, though as things stand now it looks like Tanner Roark and Joe Ross will fill out the rotation.

Cole said he's just preparing himself to be ready when he's asked.

"I've always been trying and keeping up and when they call on me I'm always trying to be ready for it," he said.

While he's up, he explained, he'll take advantage of the opportunity to learn from the Nationals' other pitchers.

As a kid, Cole said, he watched television and studied pitcher's deliveries, and he still learns a lot from observing.

"Growing up, when I was younger, we had the Braves channel, and we would always watch the Braves every now and then and I followed John Smoltz, just his pitching mechanics, to how he threw, I felt was similar to what I did. But then when I got up here, you start listening to the guys talk, you pick their [brain] every once in a while.

"We have a lot of great guys on this staff, Gio [Gonzalez], [Max] Scherzer, just watching them pitch -- I learn by watching a lot of times, I don't always have to ask and talk. I can do a lot by just watching somebody and then every now and then you can ask them and get little hints of how they approach certain guys, why they do certain things."

Will the 24-year-old get another opportunity to start in the majors this season? Will he end up in the bullpen? Either way, he's ready.

"I mean, whatever they want me as right now," Cole said. "I mean, I love being a starter and that's what I've always been, but if they want me as a relief pitcher, anything like that right now, that's what I'll do."