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Washington Nationals’ 2018 rotation: A.J. Cole wants to claim fifth spot with Nats in 2018...

A.J. Cole has bounced up and down between Triple-A and the majors over the last few seasons, but he’s got his sights set on the fifth spot in the Nationals’ rotation this season.

While acknowledging that he would consider rotation additions if he can find the right free agent or trade, Washington Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo has consistently said that he is comfortable with the in-house options in the organization right now, including right-hander A.J. Cole, the Nats’ 25-year-old, 2010 4th Round pick.

“We have great confidence in our in-house options,” Rizzo told reporters at the Winter Meetings earlier this month.

“A.J. Cole threw the ball extremely well his last seven starts last year. His stuff was good, it up-ticked at the end of the season, and of course we love [Erick] Fedde.

“He’ll be healthy and have some major league time under his belt, so we feel good about where we’re at. So what we’ll be looking for is depth.”

As a starter, Cole posted a 3.86 ERA, a 5.19 FIP, 24 walks (4.87 BB/9), 41 Ks (8.32 K/9), and a .263/.367/.440 line against in eight starts and 44 13 IP last season.

“A.J. to me, his last seven starts as a big leaguer last year were really good,” Rizzo said in an MLB Network Radio interview this month. “You’re talking about a guy that had a sub-4.00 ERA as kind of an up-and-down Triple-A/big league season, which never helps, and his stuff up-ticked at the end of the season, and he threw well for us.

“I’ve got good confidence in him.”

Cole too, seemed to gain some confidence with his success down the stretch for the 2017 NL East champs. He told reporters this past weekend at Nationals WinterFest in the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, that he wanted to compete for and win the fifth spot in the Nats’ rotation, behind Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Tanner Roark, and Gio Gonzalez.

“I would love to do that,” Cole said. “That fifth spot right now, and then progress on. But if they need me in the pen or something like that, I’ll do that as well.”

Looking back on his 2017 season, Cole said he thought he made a lot of progress and grew as a pitcher.

“I feel like I’ve come a long way and really been watching older guys,” he explained, “and just other people and how they go after the game.

“I feel like I’ve done a pretty good job at it, and this year, I’m trying to have that fifth spot, and I’m trying to just be ready for whatever they need me at as well.”

Cole has spent the last few seasons bouncing up and down between Triple-A Syracuse and the majors (though he’s now out of options).

It hasn’t always been easy, he acknowledged.

“It always gives you a little extra fight in there, because you’re going back and forth between Triple-A and the big leagues,” he said.

“You’ve got a different ball, you’ve got a different zone, throwing to different people. I think it’s a lot harder going down and then back up, down and then back up. I feel like that was harder than going from the starting rotation to the pen in the big leagues at the end of the year, but that’s just me from going back and forth.”

The successful run Rizzo pointed to at the end of the season, Cole said, was a result of getting consistent starts (though there were a number of relief outings mixed in over the last two months of the season).

“I feel like the consistency really helped,” Cole explained.

“The more you throw, the more consistent you can get. The more you learn up there, getting the chances to throw against the hitters, being up there to watch the other pitchers and everything like that, you just get better each time you go out.”

As he prepares for the 2018 campaign this winter, Cole said he’s determined to get ready for Spring Training and compete for a spot in the big league rotation.

“I’m doing everything I can with workouts to mentally preparing myself to keeping my arm strong and getting ready to pitch.”

He’s also trying to get back to throwing a changeup more consistently, after throwing it just 5.8% of the time in 2017, down from 19.1% and 7.2% over his first two seasons in the majors.

“I used to throw my changeup a lot, and I’ve gotten away from it,” Cole said.

“And I’m trying to get that back. It’s a great pitch to have both to lefties and righties, and I threw it a lot to lefties last year, and not to righties, and I’m trying to bring that back and have the confidence and everything to throw that at any time, any count to a righty as well.”