When it comes to ranking an organization’s top prospects there are lots of places to look, but the one that gets the most attention is Baseball America. It is essentially the quintessential list of an organizations top prospects, and so it was a bit of a surprise when the list came out and AJ Cole was ranked as the sixth best prospect in the organization. It was an interesting development as AJ Cole was the organization’s number two prospect the season before and did nothing but perform in 2014 with a 3.16 ERA and 3.47 K/BB ratio split between two levels. Cole’s K/9 dropped from 9.5 the previous season to 7.5 in 2014, but he still didn’t walk many hitters and the results were there. In other words Cole did nothing to deserve to drop all the way from second to sixth.
What happened then was some other names become trendier and they shot up the Nationals prospect rankings and in reality Cole isn’t the number sixth prospect, but the seventh but we’ll get to that later. Michael Taylor replaced Cole as the number two prospect in the organization and his rise up the leader boards came due to a very strong 2014. Taylor blasted homer after homer in the minor leagues despite an insanely high strikeout rate and finished the season with a few impressive showings at the major league level. Taylor is regarded as the best defender in the Nats minor league system and if his 2014 power display is for real then his upside is tremendous. This one isn’t that puzzling as the upside of a power hitting 20-30 homer excellent defensive centerfielder is far more valuable than that of a mid-rotation starter.
Here is where it gets puzzling. Two pitchers and Steven Souza Jr also jumped AJ Cole. The reason the pitchers are puzzling is that Reynaldo Lopez is a pitcher with lots of upside, but is his upside as a 20 year old pitcher in low A that much different than when AJ Cole was a 20 year old pitcher in low A. Reynaldo Lopez is a similar prospect to AJ Cole and is two years behind Cole is the developmental prospect. Cole wasn’t as productive at the age of 20 in his one season in the Oakland A’s organization, but Reynaldo Lopez is very much on the same career path as AJ Cole and has similar upside. Lopez could end up the better pitcher, but again Cole had a good season in 2014 and didn’t nothing to lose his spot as the number two prospect in the organization.
The other pitcher that jumped AJ Cole is 2014 first round draft pick Erick Fedde. I don’t really have much to say about this one. It is simply puzzling. Fedde being a first round pick and AJ Cole a fourth round pick is the only reason to jump him over AJ Cole, but Cole is only a year older than Fedde and has been in professional ball since the age of 18. Fedde hasn’t thrown a single pitch as a member of the Washington Nationals all while Cole had a good season in 2014. While Tommy John’s surgery is now a near guarantee to return from there is still the 10% that don’t and until it is known how Fedde recovers from the surgery he shouldn’t be elevated over a fellow pitcher that had a good season at the highest minor league level in 2014.
Finally we get to Steven Souza who as you know is no longer with the Nationals and here is why Cole is listed as the sixth best prospect, but really fell to seventh. Souza was traded for Trea Turner and Joe Ross, both prospects were then subsequently ranked ahead of AJ Cole. Turner technically isn’t Washington Nationals property yet, and may very well be a better prospect than Cole, but I’m starting to get a little suspicious of all these great shortstop prospects. More teams have great shortstop prospects than have great shortstops. Either we’re about to enter a new golden age of shortstops or someone isn’t evaluating these prospects properly. I don’t have that much of an issue with Turner over Cole as once again a power hitting middle infielder is a more valuable player than a mid-rotation starter.
Now we get to Joe Ross. A high upside pitcher that has yet to have that upside displayed in the stats. Joe Ross is a year younger than AJ Cole, but had a worse season at lower levels in the minors in 2014 than Cole. This one might simply be that Joe Ross is new to the organization so why not put him above AJ Cole. There is nothing about Joe Ross that says he should be considered a better prospect than AJ Cole. He pitched in a more hitter friendly league that AJ Cole struggled in but he also has a lower strikeout rate than Cole and an equal walk rate. Again AJ Cole did nothing wrong in 2014 to fall all the way from being considered the second best prospect in the organization to seventh.
This is all only based on the Baseball America list. If instead we go to Baseball Prospectus we’ll see that Cole is still listed as the number two prospect in the organization and this entire column is pointless, because the heart and soul of prospect lists is opinion. Two prospect evaluators are attempting to predict the future and the one for Baseball Prospectus believes AJ Cole has the second best future in the Nationals organization and the Baseball America evaluator disagrees, and as the past has proven the future disagrees with both.