February 28, 2021

Washington Nationals 2014 Top 25 Prospects: No. 3 A.J. Cole

In this series, District Sports Page has provide detailed scouting reports on our list of Top 25 Washington Nationals prospects. You can find our overview with the entire list here. We will now move into even further detailed reports for our Top 10.

Here’s our scouting reports on prospects Nos. 21-15, prospects Nos. 16-20 and Nos. 11-16.

And so far in the Top 10:

No. 10 Eury Perez
No. 9 Jake Johansen
No. 8 Sammy Solis
No. 7 Michael Taylor
No. 6 Zach Walters
No. 5 Steven Souza
No. 4 Drew Ward

Now without further ado, here is prospect No. 3, RHP A.J. Cole.

3. A.J. Cole
Bats: Right, Throws: Right
Height: 6′ 5″, Weight: 200 lb.
Born: January 5, 1992 in Winter Springs, Florida, US (Age 22)
Draft: Fourth Round, 2010

Fastball Velocity Fastball Movement Fastball Command Power Curve Change Off Speed Command Delivery Overall Future Potential
60/70 60/70 50/60 40/50 45/55 45/55 Very Good All-Star

After selecting Bryce Harper with the top overall pick of the 2010 Draft, the Nationals selected Cole in the fourth round (116th overall). Widely considered among the draft’s elite high school arms, Cole’s strong commitment to the University of Miami pushed him down draft boards some, but the Nationals still had to fork over a well over slot $2 million signing bonus to reel him in. His star was so bright though, that Washington was more than happy with their side of the bargain.

Though he was thin and wiry, Cole had dominated his opponents while pitching for Oviedo High, to the tune of a 0.93 ERA and 84 strikeouts in 60 innings during his senior summer. His fastball was already in the low 90’s, and his off-speed stuff and mechanics were advanced for his age. Needless to say, he had little trouble in the low minors, and was able to put together a superb season in the South Atlantic League in 2011. He got past a rocky start to the season to one-hit the Delmarva Shorebirds on April 13th. And from there he caught fire, combining for a 2.81 ERA during the remainder of his starts. He totaled a 4.04 ERA and a sparking 4.5 K/BB ratio on the season overall.

The following summer, the Nationals’ found themselves in the position to compete for  the playoffs for the first time since coming to Washington. Their surplus of young arms was a major asset on the trade market, and they ended up sending Cole to Oakland in the Gio Gonzalez trade. After just one tough year with the Athletics, getting lit up in the home-run-launching California League, the Nationals got Cole back in the Michael Morse trade.

Cole got right back on track last season while pitching in much more forgiving Carolina League and Eastern League digs. He got his confidence back, and the (then) 21-year-old was able to dominate much older competition during the second half of 2013 while pitching with the Harrisburg Senators. Cole posted a quality start in each of his seven appearances in Harrisburg, striking out nearly five times more batters than he walked en route to a 2.18 ERA and 2.56 FIP.

Cole has outstanding pure stuff. His fastball velocity is exactly the kind of fire scouts want to see from a young arm, and he’s consistently out-gunned other top pitchers at his age and level. He sits in the 93-95 mph range throughout his starts, working batters in and out with solid command of the strike zone, and he can reach back for 97 mph. He uses his excellent athleticism and body control to generate velocity cleanly, consistently and smoothly. He pitches very well out of the stretch, and he’s very quiet in his release and follow-through, leading evaluators to believe he’ll carry plus command with him to the mound one day. On the downside, his thin, wiry frame isn’t the type that will hold muscle mass well. Like a young Phil Hughes, he’s somewhat slender and could risk tightening up if he focuses on bulk and power. Still, no pitcher needs more than the combination of plus velocity and plus fastball command.

Cole couples his razor-edged four-seamer with a heavy tailing two-seamer that has developed into a killer pitch. He gets huge sink and tail on it in the low to mid 90’s, so much so that it often resembles a splitter. The evolution of the pitch has seemingly helped him to miss more bats and create more soft contact recently, after having so many of his heaters get launched into the stratosphere in 2012.

Cole’s off-speed stuff and movement are both solid. He relies on his fastball as heavily as any 97-mph-hurler should, alternating between tailing two-seamers to his arm-side and cutting four-seamers that he likes to attack lefties with. But he’s definitely not a one-trick pony.

His mid 80’s changeup looks like his most reliable offspeed pitch right now, as he’s able to throw it for strikes consistently and take 7-10 mph off while throwing with his fastball effort. His release tends to over-pronate, possibly tipping the pitch to smarter batters and creating some unpredictable tumbling movement. Overall though, the pitch has a lot of promise, and his ability to throw it in any count is extremely valuable. It’s already fringe-average and should eventually be solid to plus as he builds up feel for it from continued use.

Cole also throws a potentially solid power curve. The pitch flashes late downward movement when he fires it as his chase, swing-over pitch. It has a ways to go though. He softens up on it more than many scouts would like, and his overall feel for it looks iffy. It tends to roll off to his arm-side with big, loose break.

Cole’s mechanics aren’t perfect. He throws across his body, wraps his arm and shows exaggerated up-hill shoulder tilt as he loads. He hides the ball well against right-handed hitters, but lefties see the ball much better, often handling his mid 90’s heat inside. On the bright side, the extra shoulder rotation in the backside of his delivery, when he shows the ball to the first baseman, doesn’t lead to any major timing flaws.

Cole leads with his hip and takes a big stride, lining up his front toe to his target with great hip-shoulder separation. The extra swing and stride allow his pitching arm to sync back up with his lower body, leading to nice timing. In fact, it’s hard to catch his arm out of position when his lead foot plants. He also repeats his mechanics and landing spot surprising well, considering he has such a healthy stride. He has the ingredients to be a 200-inning guy consistently despite a long, narrow-shouldered frame.

Overall, Cole has the tools to be a top-of-the-rotation pitcher like Matt Cain, and he’s a relatively low-risk arm. The back side of his delivery could be better, but there aren’t any major red flags and his mechanics are largely a plus. His biggest knocks are his difficulties beating lefties and his tendency to give up hard contact. Flyball tendencies aren’t such a big deal for hard-throwers in the National League, and Cole is making strides against southpaws.

About Ryan Kelley

Ryan Kelley is a Contributor to District Sports Page. He’s an economist by day and an aspiring journalist living in the D.C. area. Native to Connecticut, he has lived in Washington since graduating from The George Washington University and has covered Minor League Baseball and Team USA. He is founder of BaseballNewsHound.com, and specializes in prospects playing in leagues on the East Coast and in the Mid-Atlantic region. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @BBNewsHound.

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