The Return of AJ Cole

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When the Morse trade went through on Wednesday evening, the
first reports out seemed to suggest that A.J. Cole was the full return for the
Nationals. As a big Cole fan in the past, I was pretty happy about the deal;
Morse was no longer really needed in DC and was going to leave after the 2013
season anyways with no compensation coming back, and Cole was still a very good
prospect in my eyes. Once I found out that Blake Treinen and a player to be named later were involved as well, the deal
went from good to great in my eyes. I wrote about the Treinen addition on Thursday and
the PTBNL will likely be a 2012 A’s pick not from the first 5 or so rounds.
While Cole is a familiar face, it is still worth looking back on what went
wrong and then what went right with him in the small amount of time he spent
with Oakland.

Cole’s short-lived career with the Oakland Athletics started
out pretty rocky, but end up relatively smooth. He battled issues with his
mechanics and got battered around pretty badly in A+ ball (0-7 with a 7.82 ERA
in 38 innings and 8 starts). Some of his rate stats remained pretty solid (7.34
K/9 and 2.37 BB/9), but others were pretty bad (1.66 HR/9, .405 BABIP and 52.2
LOB%). The latter three suggest that Cole was a victim of bad luck on top of
his already poor performance.

The good news is that Cole returned to form when he was sent
back to low-A ball. He struck out 9.6 per 9 innings while walking only 1.79 and
giving up home runs to 0.66. His .291 BABIP and 75.7% LOB% were pretty average,
which makes his 2.07 ERA and 2.74 FIP pretty legitimate. All of this came at a
much larger sample size of 95 and 2/3 innings over 19 starts. While it was
certainly disappointing to see him start the 2012 season in such poor fashion,
he ended up at about the same place he left off the 2011 season at, which is
much better than a complete breakdown.

Cole was rated the #57 overall prospect by Baseball America
last offseason and was the Nats’ #3 prospect in Fangraphs’ Marc Hulet’s top 10
rankings after the 2010 and 2011 seasons. John Sickels has Cole as a Grade B
prospect in his 2013 Baseball Prospect Book (which is always a great buy),
noting that he needs to work on his slider (which Sickels calls slurvish) in
order to keep moving up the ladder successfully. Baseball America pegged Cole
in the #3 spot on the A’s offseason top 10 in November ’12, naming him the
pitcher with the best control in the system. Cole even surpassed fellow
righties Brad Peacock and Sonny Gray from last year’s list.

The bottom line is that 2012 was not really a setback season
for Cole. He did not get injured, regained his confidence as the season went on,
and ended the season very strong. He still throws in the 93-94 MPH range and
touches 97-98 with slightly above average slider and changeups that still have
room to improve to 50-55 pitches on the 20-80 scale. While it would have been
nice to have him ready to play in Harrisburg to start 2013, the A’s likely
would not have traded him if he was seen as AA ready (and/or potentially Major
League-ready in the next 1.5-2 years). Fortunately, with the Nationals’ top 4
starters all young and under team control through the 2015 season, the
Nationals can take their time with Cole before he is asked to contribute at the
Major League level.