Washington Nationals: Finding a role for A.J. Cole


A.J. Cole has been competing for the fifth spot in the Washington Nationals’ starting rotation, but is that the best role for him?

Entering the spring, A.J. Cole appeared to be the clear frontrunner to fill the vacant spot in the Washington Nationals‘ starting rotation. He finished 2017 strong, pitching to a 3.81 ERA in 11 big league outings. Although he ultimately did not make it, he even garnered consideration for the postseason roster.

Also working in Cole’s favor was the fact that his competition for the role was rather lackluster. Erick Fedde has a bright future, but might not be quite ready, and Tommy Milone and Edwin Jackson are both past their prime.

The fifth spot in the rotation appeared to be Cole’s to lose, but the Nats took matters into their own hands after he got off to a rocky start this spring. On Friday, the Nats signed veteran starter Jeremy Hellickson to a minor league deal.

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Now, what once appeared to be Cole’s job could easily go to Hellickson.

The fact that Hellickson was signed does not mean he is guaranteed a spot in the rotation. After all, he is coming off of a dreadful 2017 campaign and is in camp on a minor league deal. There is a reason he remained unsigned for so long.

If Hellickson does earn the rotation spot, though, Cole is still likely to make the Opening Day roster. He is out of options, so the Nats would have to pass him through waivers before he could be sent to the minors. Because of his relative youth and potential, there is a good chance that he would get claimed.

Assuming Hellickson fills out the rotation and Cole makes the Opening Day roster, Cole would likely serve as a long reliever. Although he has been a starter for almost his entire professional career, he may actually be better suited for a relief role.

Last season, Cole made three relief appearances for the Nats. In his brief stint as a reliever, he pitched to a 3.52 ERA in 7.2 innings. While this is a small sample size, many of his peripherals, such as WHIP, were much better than in his time as a starter.

Cole also passed the eye test as a reliever. Since he did not have to conserve his energy to last five or six innings, he could pitch with more effort. This led to increased velocity and sharper breaking pitches, which, in turn, led to improved results.

There is also reason to be slightly concerned about Cole as a starter. Last year, he pitched to a 2.93 ERA in his first time through the lineup, which is great. Then, he pitched to a 2.60 ERA in his second time through the lineup, which is even better.

However, Cole’s ERA plummeted to 6.94 in his third time through the lineup. Between hitters becoming more familiar with his stuff and him fatiguing as the game progressed, he did not fare very well late in starts.

Because of this, Cole should not face an opposing lineup more than two times. This is not ideal as a starter, but it would make him a perfect long reliever. The Nats are also lacking a bonafide long-man in the bullpen, so he would be a nice addition to the relief corps.

Next: Nats wise to sign Jeremy Hellickson

The late addition of Hellickson may appear to shake things up for the Nats’ pitching staff, but, in reality, it makes everything fall into place. If Hellickson is able to return to form in 2018, he will be a solid fifth starter, and Cole will be a solid long reliever.