Washington Nationals: A.J. Cole’s season of decision


As the Washington Nationals search for a fifth starter, A.J. Cole has one more chance to show he is ready. The odds are in his favor.

The Washington Nationals have a roster battle to settle down in Florida. For A.J. Cole, his major league career with the Nats is on the brink.

Yes, that sounds harsh. But, with Erick Fedde close to big-league ready and with Joe Ross due back in the rotation by 2019, Cole must impress during Spring Training.

With every appearance the Nats will not pay big money for another starter, this is Cole’s opportunity to show the front office brass what he has. He is the clubhouse leader for the fifth slot in the rotation. Fedde and others will give Cole a run while a rehabbing Joe Ross waits in the wings.

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For Cole, there is good news.

Because Washington is the overwhelming favorite for a third-straight National League East title, whoever wins the spot can grow into the role. No one is expecting 15 wins and 200 innings from the back of the rotation. If the starters remain healthy, Cole would not need to start a potential playoff game.

With reclamation project Tommy Milone the other serious challenger for the rotation spot, Cole’s experience gives him advantages from the start.

But, in Cole’s two partial season with Washington, he has yet to show his ceiling is above spot-starter status.

We will toss out the 3-5 record. In his case that is unimportant. Although his 3.81 ERA over 52 innings is good, his 5.20 fielding independent ERA is not. Again, 51 hits allowed gives Cole an 8.8 H/9 ratio. Great, but he walked 27 for a 4.7 BB/9 mark. A 1.550 WHIP is a huge step back from his 1.330 level in 2016.

Mr. Cole was a lucky pitcher in 2017.

Remember, fifth starters should keep you in games while tossing into the sixth inning. Any pitcher who can eat 160-180 innings from that slot is worth their weight in gold. A 1.200-1.300 WHIP is acceptable and a sub-4.50 ERA gets you paid. No reason Cole cannot hit those marks.

But, even if he comes north with the job in hand, Fedde will get his chance to pitch at some point. If Cole is to establish himself as a full-time starter, he must pitch within himself and throw strikes. He throws too many balls and that will bite him.

As with Michael Taylor last spring, new manager Dave Martinez needs to sit Cole down and be blunt. Washington is not sold on Ross’ durability and ability when he comes back from his Tommy John surgery. Cole has the chance to lock a rotation spot down for the future.

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But, he has to believe in himself and earn it.