Down on the Farm: Checking in on the Nationals’ Top 5 Prospects

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Jul 14, 2013; Flushing , NY, USA; USA pitcher

A.J. Cole

throws a pitch during the 2013 All Star Futures Game at Citi Field. USA defeated World 4-2. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

No. 2: A.J. Cole, RHP – Triple-A Syracuse

When the Nationals traded right-hander A.J. Cole to the Athletics in the deal that brought Gio Gonzalez to D.C., they knew they were giving up a premier pitching talent that had the potential to become a superstar at the big league level. For this reason, one of the best deals the Nationals have made in recent years is the Michael Morse trade – the trade that brought Cole back to the team that drafted him four years ago.

Cole probably relishes his return to Washington as much as the Nationals do, given how much he struggled in the Athletics’ farm system. After getting off to a good start with Oakland’s A-ball clubs, he struggled mightily in High-A Stockton, where he went 0-7 with a 7.82 ERA in 38 innings of work.

“When he came back to us we did a few mechanical things with him to get him to a place where we felt we could maximize his skills,” Assistant GM Doug Harris said in a November 2013 MLB Network Radio interview.

Upon returning to the Nationals, however, Cole once again became the dominant pitcher the team envisioned when they drafted him in 2010.

Relying on a powerful fastball that often touches 98 mph, Cole went 6-3 with a 4.25 ERA while striking out 102 batters in 97 1/3 innings for High-A Potomac in 2013. The right-hander was even better after being promoted to Double-A Harrisburg later that year, going 4-2 with a 2.18 ERA and 49 strike outs in 45 1/3 innings for the Senators.

Cole’s dominance earned him an appearance in last year’s Futures Game, and the young right-hander did not disappoint. In front of a packed Citi Field in New York, Cole retired the only two batters he faced and earned the save in Team USA’s 4-2 win. The right-hander was in shut-down mode on the biggest stage of his career thus far, throwing six of his 10 pitches for strikes.

Cole began the 2014 season with Harrisburg and picked up right where he left off, going 6-3 with a 2.92 ERA and 61 strike outs in 71 innings of work. The right-hander was promoted to Triple-A Syracuse in late June, where he is 1-0 with a 3.78 ERA.

He’s only 22-years-old, but Cole has turned into one of the team’s most promising prospects and has the potential to become one of the best pitchers in the game. With his dominant high-90’s fastball and solid changeup and curveball, the 6-foot-5 right-hander could be the Nationals’ latest homegrown superstar. If Cole continues to thrive at Syracuse, he could join the big league club when rosters expand in September.