Could A.J. Cole Be the Nationals Future Closer?
Since being drafted in the fourth round of the 2010 MLB Draft by the Washington Nationals, right-handed pitcher A.J. Cole has had his fair share of ups and downs throughout his career in the minors. In 2011 – his first full season playing pro ball – Cole went 4-7 while posting a decent 4.04 ERA in 89 innings of work for the Class-A Hagerstown Suns. He also punched out 108 batters while walking just 24 that season, and had a K/9 ratio a shade under 11. Despite an above average showing in 2011 by the then 19-year-old, Cole was traded from the Nationals to the Oakland Athletics as part of a blockbuster deal that sent Gio Gonzalez to Washington. It was then that Cole’s career hit a bit of a speed bump – as he struggled in 2012.
He started his 2012 campaign off on the right foot pitching in Class-A for the Athletics organization. He went 6-3 while posting an impressive 2.07 ERA in 95 2/3 innings pitched. He also had a solid K/9 ratio of 9.6 and a K/BB ratio of 5.37 in his time playing in Class-A that season. However, when he was promoted to High-A his season he went into a downward spiral.
Cole went 0-7 while getting shelled posting a 7.82 ERA in his 38 innings pitching in High-A that year. In January of 2013, he was traded back to the Nationals in a 3-team deal that sent slugger Michael Morse to the Seattle Mariners. In his second stint in the Nationals farm system, Cole had a very solid showing in the minor leagues. He began 2013 in High-A for the Nationals organization, and went 6-3 while posting a 4.25 ERA. His K/9 ratio remained above nine – as he sported a K/9 ratio of 9.4 in his 97 1/3 innings pitched in High-A last season. He was promoted to Double-A in late July by the Nationals and he didn’t disappoint.
He made seven starts for the Double-A Harrisburg Senators in 2013, and went 4-2 while posting an impressive 2.18 ERA. His K/9 ratio slightly increased to 9.7 as well and he had a HR/9 ratio of 0.6 – the lowest of his career at any minor league level. With his stellar showing in Double-A last season, I expect him to have a very solid 2014 season in the minors. We could even possibly see him at the big league level come September if he plays well enough in the minors.
However, there’s still a slight question mark as to whether he’ll be a starter or reliever when he does get to the majors. His 6’4″ 180 pound frame doesn’t exactly scream “durability” and his inconsistencies in the minors is reason for concern for the Nationals.
His build/body type may give him the potential to add strength, to his core and lower half, as well as clean up the mechanical issues he struggled with in 2012.
His fastball sits in the mid to upper 90’s at about 94-97 mph with quite a bit of sinking action and average arm-side run. He posses good command of the pitch and tends to use it to really challenge right-handed hitters.
His curveball has some good power but he is very inconsistent with it at times. He has some nice arm speed when throwing it but he struggles with his release point and can show some slurve-like action. Overall, he’s very inconsistent with his curveball and lacks control/command of the pitch.
Cole’s change-up definitely improved in 2013. It’s still an average pitch in his repertoire, however, I feel that his development and ability to consistently locate his secondary pitches will determine how close he comes to reaching his full potential.
With all of these glaring issues in Cole’s game, the Nationals might want to consider moving him from a starter to a reliever – preferably in the back-end of the bullpen. Washington didn’t have a clear cut closer last season and blew 21 saves in the process. Nine different pitchers were called upon to shut the door in the ninth inning for the Nationals in 2013, and only three of them did it successfully. Here’s a look at the guys who Davey Johnson asked to shut the door out of the pen in 2013:
With Drew Storen’s injury history and Soriano’s rough patch in August of last season, the Nationals might need a back-up plan for who to hand the ball to in the 9th inning. Needless to say – every team should have a Plan B when it comes to whose the team’s closer is. I fully expect Soriano to be the team’s closer in 2014. The right-hander’s 43 saves last season were ranked second among NL pitchers and he made up for his terrible month of August last season by closing out the 2013 season strong in September. Here’s a look at his turnaround in the last two months of the 2013 season:
Overall, Soriano had a great season last year and is bound to have another great one in 2014. However, I’m not sure Soriano is the long-term solution at closer for the Nationals. In fact, I know he’s not. He’s 34-years-old and probably only has a few good years left in his arm. Although he’s still putting up superb numbers, the Nationals can’t bank on him to consistently put up good numbers year in and year out. Let’s face it: players get old. According to Fangraphs.com, Soriano is projected to duplicate his solid 2013 performance in the 2014 season. Here’s a link to that.
Although, mostly all his stats are projected to slightly decline in 2014, they’re pretty similar to his 2013 season – which should leave the Nationals satisfied to have him as their closer. If Soriano doesn’t pan out then Washington has a great reliever in Tyler Clippard.
Letting Clippard close out games if Soriano falters in 2014 would be that “Plan B” I was referring to earlier. Clippard has proven that he can get batters out from both sides of the plate and simply gives up less runs than Soriano. To see Clippard’s stats and 2014 projections compared to Soriano’s, click here.
Back to A.J. Cole – who I believe could be that “Plan C” for the Nationals if things ever got to that point. Although he holds more value as a starter in the Nationals farm system, chances are he’ll get called up to the majors in 2014 and work out of the bullpen – and who knows, maybe he’ll close a game or two. Whether Cole proves that he’s big-league ready as a stater or closer will be an interesting thing to follow in 2014. Ultimately, I think he’ll get some starts at the major league level but will eventually be tried as a closer if the Nationals feel that it’s necessary. Either way, expect Cole to be in the majors sometime this upcoming season.
- Anton Joe is an MLB Staff Writer for ProSportsExtra.com
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