Nationals Baseball: AJ Cole - 5th Starter

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

AJ Cole - 5th Starter

The other day Mike Rizzo said AJ Cole was the 5th starter for the Nats. My gut reaction is that's a bad idea, but is it really? Or am I too focused on past performance and higher profile options?

AJ Cole first made the bottom of prospect lists before 2012, after putting up a solid season with a lot of Ks and good control at age 19 in A ball.

Think about this for a moment. AJ Cole was a "Top Prospect" before the Nats were good.

Huh. Ok. Back on track.

AJ was shipped out to Oakland as part of the package to get Gio, where he did well again in A ball but floundered in the high-octane California League. That was enough to knock him back off prospect lists and the Nats were able to get him back in a three team deal that was mostly about getting John Jaso to the A's and Mike Morse to the Mariners. Cole would immediately perk back-up and do ok in High A and very well in a brief stint in AA. Back to the bottom of prospect lists he went.

At this point, three plus years into his minor league career AJ was still young (21 in AA) and his peripherals seemed good. He could strike guys out and he didn't walk them like other high K guys might. He also didn't give up many home runs. But giving up hits remained a problem. For a strike out guy a lot of guys made good contact on Cole. This remained true as he scaled the minors in 2014 but some favorable breaks kept his ERA down and it looked like if he could solve that last issue in AAA in 2015, he might be something for the future.

Well he did it! Well sort of. He was able to drop the hits, but along with that the Ks went down and the walks went up. It was a different style of pitching. An effective style apparently. But it wasn't the total package the Nats were hoping to see. In 2016 the Nats didn't need to try out Cole early with Joe Ross ready to go, so Cole languished in AAA striking out a few more but giving up more hits and putting up mediocre numbers. He would get his shot late in the year as injuries opened up spots but he wouldn't impress despite controlling the worst of his tendencies. 2017 would be a repeat of 2016 with Cole being not good in AAA and getting a late season call-up to the majors.

The difference this time is that Cole would manage to throw out a decent ERA in his starts. A 3.86 ERA as a starter - arguably good for a 4/5 in the majors. So has he finally done it?

Not really. His WHIP was very high with his BB/9 jumping way up and his K/9 not following suit. His HR/FB and BABIP were pretty normal - maybe even low for him. So how come he didn't get killed?  His LOB% was very good. If he pitched a whole season like that it would be amongst the best in the league. (Top 5 last year were Kershaw, Ray, Kluber, Gio and Max) . Is that something he can control? Yeah it seems like it's not unrelated to pitcher ability. Is that something I think he's controlling? Nah.

Ok to be fair he did get more GBs than before but mostly I think it's a fluke. I think in a normal year that won't be that high, you'll see more runs scored and a 4.50 ERA or worse staring you in the face.

If you want to be an optimist you can say we haven't see that much of Cole - only 100 innings and not even that many as a starter.  He was always been on the fringe of the radar of the guys who rate prospects and he had that legit good 2015 just a couple years ago in Syracuse as a 23 year old.  There is talent there and maybe, if he keeps leaning into GB producing, he can be a decent back-end starter.

On the other hand the "Three out of Four" (good K, good BB, good HR, bad H) that helped him rise through the minors has fallen away over the past couple years. He is giving up more homers. He's walking more guys. He's not striking out the same numbers. All while still getting hit too often. It's not a fluke that his ERA has been bad. Nothing about him stands out as special and continued exposure in the majors shows a league that's fooled less and is hitting Cole harder. Chances are better, I'd guess, for an ERA over 5 than under 4 if he starts regularly next year.

In short, I wouldn't put my faith in Cole being any good. But that doesn't necessarily mean I wouldn't make him my 5th starter. What are the other choices? There is Edwin Jackson, who showed 5 starts of solid pitching last year for the Nats. Unfortunately he started 13 games. He had a 5.07 ERA for the Nats last year and carries a 5.32 ERA over the past four seasons. This is who he is. He's a placeholder. The other choice is Erick Fedde, a former hot prospect who went under the knife going into the draft where the Nats selected him. After the year off the Nats have been aggressive in moving him up the minors (he's only a year younger than Cole). He hasn't been consistenly good but he's pitched well enough to keep the train going. Last year he had a fine start to the season in AA, but his development was interrupted by the Nats trying to get him ready to relieve - something he wouldn't end up doing. He spent over a month pitching 1-2 inning outings in AA and AAA before returning to start. He was fine in AAA but got roughed up in a few major league spot starts. His lead up to this point is in fact a lot like Cole's, with the exception of Fedde being great at keeping the ball in the park (17 homers in 265 IP in the minors). He strikes out ok, walks not too many, but gives up a few more hits than you'd like. That all fell apart big time in the majors - but 15 innings is 15 innings. You can't really judge that. 

If it's up to me I start Fedde. I suppose there is sense to "give Cole one more chance while Fedde warms up in AAA. Bring Fedde up, hopefully to stay, if (when) Cole fails" because you can write off Cole by like May and will be more inclined to work through Fedde's issues in the majors as opposed to dip in AAA for Cole. However, I think Cole is a done deal. He's not good enough. Why bother wasting a month of starts of him, or if you are unlucky and he gets some bounces his way, 2-3 months. Cole isn't the future. Fedde... well he probably isn't either but you can't be as sure about that. If you aren't going out to get someone good, stick Fedde in the 5 slot and as long as he's not terrible let him keep pitching. Cole will get a turn sometime. These guys aren't immune to injury.


Carl said...

In this terrible free agent market, at what point do you decide, say, Lance Lynn is enough of an upgrade?

Scherzer's Blue Eye said...

That 3.81 ERA is all smoke an mirrors: BB/9 was a Treinen-esque 4.7/9, K-rate was a Papelbonian 7.6/9, 1.6 HR/9 make for a 5.20 FIP.

His 36.8% hard-hit rate would rank 6th highest in MLB, if he qualified.

That thud you hear will be him crashing back to Earth. I'd much rather have him as a swingman

Chas R said...

Given the weak NL East and the Nats playoff competition (Cubs, Dodgers) have not improved, I am guessing Rizzo sees no urgency in getting an upgrade at SP. Why not see what Cole do, and then Fedde should Cole blow up. Upgrade by the trade deadline if necessary.

I think the other issue will come later in the season- do we really want Gio pitching another post season game? I think not.

Anonymous said...

Isn't Cole out of options? If so, don't you have to give him the first chance to succeed or you potentially lose him? I assumed that is why he is presumptive 5th starter for Rizzo.

Rob Evans said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rob Evans said...

I agree. I think Cole isn't good enough to warrant being given the 5th starter spot. My concern is the Nats will waste 2-3 months of his starts to finally come to that conclusion. As we all know, games in April and May count too.

Jay said...

I say sign a pitcher. There are a ton available with the way the offseason has gone. Remember two things, one we don't want Gio starting a playoff game ever again, two this rotation has a high likelihood of not remaining intact. Then you are running both Cole and Fedde out there as 4/5 starters. Good time train wreck. I find it hard to believe that Rizzo loves the idea of going with Cole or Fedde. I think the Lerners are cheaping out again and don't want to spend. They love big ticket items but won't spend for a decent 3/4 starter.

Nattydread said...

Rizzo is waiting out the market to get a cheap 4/5 starter. Mark my words.

sirc said...

I believe that the Nats will go dumpster diving next week and sign one of the remaining pitchers for a low dollar figure. Probably a major league contract.

Maybe Jeremy Hellickson. Someone like that.

Jay said...

I totally agree with the last two posts. I think the slow moving FA market usually works to the Nats advantage. I wouldn't mind Darvish or Arrieta either. Boras does tend to save the day via the Nats on numerous occasions - see Wieters, Matt.

Ole PBN said...

This is what I have been saying about the SP depth in our organization. Come October, I'd be comfortable only with Max, Stras, and mayyyybe Tanner if he has pitched like he has for us. Not comfortable with Gio, Cole, or Fedde pitching in the postseason. I'm actually positive that we could still win the division with Fedde/Cole losing 20 games, but what does that say about what we're working with going into October? 2 1/2 starters isn't going to get it done. You need to win three games. Who is winning that 3rd game? (and that's assuming Stras and Max win theirs, which we've seen, isn't always a guarantee).

Anonymous said...

Ole PBN makes a good point; if our SP depth is precarious because of how few arms we have in the minors, it makes sense to: go for one more #3 type starter (Lance Lynn, for example) and to go all in this year because the lack of depth may come back to bite us sooner than later. Max had health issues last year and Stras usually has one stint on the DL. Gio and Tanner are solid but not quite post-season solid. A really good third starter answers a lot of post-season questions. And if you sign him for three/four years, then you have your Gio replacement and maybe you extend the window a bit if Max and Stras stay healthy.

JE34 said...

Maybe I'm just a nervous nellie, but I'm not comfortable assuming the Nats will win the east just yet. The odds are very good, yes... but if the Mets' starters can stay healthy (it would be weird, but it could happen), one significant injury to Max/Stras/Tanner puts the Nats in serious trouble. Relying on Cole, Jackson and/or Fedde to pitch well enough to win on a consistent basis is... not prudent. They gotta get another starter, right?

Anonymous said...

It seems everyone wants to write off Milone. I watched all his games as a Nat. He was effective. Like EJax he has performed. I don't know why his numbers went down but I think he is a bigger and better player than given credit for.

KW said...

Yes, Cole is out of options. If he's not starting, he either kicks Glover to AAA for his slot in the bullpen or Cole gets traded. He'd do fine eating innings at the back of the rotation for one of the 10+ teams in MLB that aren't trying.

No, I would not have Cole as my 5th starter, or in my bullpen ahead of Glover. I'd trade him, even though I'd only get peanuts in return.

If it were my money, I'd probably sign Lynn. Failing that, it's time to give Fedde his shot and see what we've got. He's about to turn 25, so time to show or go. The problem with that option is that then you really have no depth, particularly if EJax opts out. Sorry Milone fans, but he's been bad the last couple of years. But the Nats really have no one else close at the AAA-AA level after Voth's collapse last season, certainly no one you'd want starting for a contender.

Out of the box suggestion: Make Glover a starter, which there was talk of doing last spring. Yeah, I know he hasn't been able to stay healthy, but maybe if he's starting instead of relieving he wouldn't red-line all the time.

Anonymous said...

I think this is too early a discussion. Rizzo isn't going to reveal his hand, so he is talking out of his butt. There is no advantage to saying "Cole is a last resort scenario. We are desperate to find a free agent or trade partner. We are really hesitant to dish out salary to free agents or talent to prospective trade partner. We are hoping to find a sucker"

Josh Higham said...

I agree with much in the comments above. With Cole out of options but a usefulish fill-in, it doesn't make sense to put him through waivers just to see Fedde do no better. Likewise, it doesn't make sense to tell the whole baseball world that the FO is worried about the trash they're likely to trot out every 5th day. I don't imagine Cole's leash will be super long, but he has been decent often enough that it's worth trotting him out on a normal schedule for a month or two before trading him or putting him on waivers. Fedde is worth more as injury depth than as a bad April 5th starter, given Cole hasn't got options left.

I've said it before: Don't sell Roark short. He's no ace, and he tends to get a fair amount worse over the course of the season, but he's not a huge liability. He had an identical season to Arrieta in 2017. Arrieta who threw 10.2 innings with 1 earned run in October (it wasn't pretty, but the Cubs won 1 of those 2 games and it wasn't Arrieta's fault MAT hit a grand slam off Wade Davis). Point is, I'd love a Roark upgrade, but he is an adequate G3 starter, and buying his production from free agency (even cheap, slow free agency) would cost a lot more than he does, and probably more than Gio does.

Fries said...

Unrelated, but Read just got hit with a PED suspension. Makes the catcher situation that much more interesting if he'll lose half a season of development in the minors

Froggy said...

Boldenon en mi Wheaties? Que es eso?

Flapjack said...

Two quick questions: How old was Tanner Rorark when he broke out? How old was Scherzer? Answer: about Cole's age. There's reason to hope.

The Nats will have a drop-off in 2019 for obvious reasons, enumerated here many times. Their window closes only if up and comers don't fill the breach. So put me down for a strategy that conserves whatever dry powder we have for a few consequential trades needed to fill out the rotation and minor league pitcher pipeline next offseason. If Taylor and Goodwin continue their improvement, there will be a trove of trade bait.

Pescado said...

I'd approach the Astros about Collin McHugh. See if they'd be willing to trade for a second tier prospect.

Ole PBN said...

@ Josh Higham - no one is disagreeing with Roark as a possible postseason starter. Is he as reliable as Stras or Max? No, but I see him as a G4 guy, maybe a G3 depending on who else we have. So my point is, who else do we have? Gio? Please. You can't go all the way through the postseason with 2 or 3 starters, which is why you need more depth there. Consider me ALL IN for LANCE LYNN. A postseason rotation of Max, Stras, Roark/Lynn in 4 games is enough to do the job. If we go into October 2018 with that, and we still can't get it done, I don't know what else to say. But I'm calling it now... Max, Stras, Roark, Gio will not get us past the NLCS.

KW said...

Would you want a starter with a WHIP of 1.50 and a FIP 5.20? That's what Cole posted in the majors last year. Don't be fooled by that half-decent 3.81 ERA. His numbers at Syracuse were even uglier, with a WHIP of 1.75, surrendering 12.2 hits per 9 innings, with an ERA of 5.88. His numbers have regressed significantly over the last two seasons. He hasn't been good since 2015.

blovy8 said...

Cole is pretty much like any other guy who finds himself with a straight fastball... in need of a solid off-speed pitch. Like any other pitcher, that can happen, so why assume anything? OTOH, you get a guy like Roark who lost the movement on his fastball last year, and nothing is certain.


blovy8 said...

The other thing is, injuries, changing roles and approaches, different coaches, and so on, can screw with guys. He's got no options now, win a job or get released/traded. Years ago, it seemed to me like his control/command on what was a mid-90s fastball was such that he could take the Zimmermann path, but I don't think so now, he needs a real breaking ball or change. Any new grip might do, but this is certainly his last shot with the Nats.

ocw5000 said...

Y'all realize that Lance Lynn is a poor man's Roark right?

Josh Higham said...

"Poor man's Roark" is a little harsh, since Lynn has been a little better at striking people out over his career, but their career average stats, career WAR, and projections for this year per Bref are eerily similar. You can make an argument that Lynn is better, but you can also make a strong case for Tanner.

Check it:

KW said...

And Lynn won't be "poor" for long, although his agent is nuts in thinking he's going to get a JZim-like contract. He'll probably get three or four years at around $15M AAV, as will Cobb. I like Lynn better than Cobb.

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