A.J. Cole Traded For $

A.J. Cole

Late Monday it was announced that the Washington Nationals had traded right-handed pitcher A.J. Cole to the New York Yankees in exchange for cash considerations.  Cole was out of minor league options heading into this season, which when coupled with his nightmarish start to 2018, forced the team to designate him for assignment last Friday.  Now the 26-year-old will look to rejuvenate his career in the Bronx.

Cole had an interesting journey with the Nationals, as he was Washington’s 4th round pick in 2010 and signed for an over-slot $2 million bonus.  About 18 months later Cole was a key piece in Washington’s acquisition of Gio Gonzalez from Oakland, only to be reacquired by the Nationals 13 months later in the Mike Morse 3-team trade with Seattle and the Athletics.  He pitched well in 2013 and 2014, rising through the minor league system and finding himself included on several Top-100 prospect lists.

Unfortunately Cole has battled inconsistency since 2015, showing flashes at both Triple-A and the major league level but never able to sustain his success.  Cole has a strong changeup and impressive fastball velocity, but his below-average command and below-average breaking pitches cause him to allow too many walks and too many home runs.  New York will now gamble that a change of scenery will allow Cole’s talent to blossom, but now in his mid-20s, time is running short if he is to become a productive major leaguer.

When I saw the news that the Yankees had acquired Cole, I momentarily felt bad for him, as I felt like the best opportunity for him would be on a team lacking pitching and expected to compete for the #1 overall pick, not the World Series.  However, for a long time I have wondered if Cole should incorporate a cutter into his repertoire at the expense of his slider and curveball – both his present breaking pitches are loopy and look drastically different from his fastball and changeup.  Perhaps going to a harder, shorter-breaking cutter could more closely mimic his other offerings and deceive hitters.  The Yankees have done well teaching the cutter to other pitchers in recent memory, and could want to tinker with his arsenal. This alteration might force him permanently into the bullpen, but might be the key to a future in the majors.

Overall I am still pessimistic that the Yankees are the right fit for Cole in his attempt to establish himself as a major league pitcher, but I do fear he will be another in a long line of young arms who leave the Nationals’ organization and find success elsewhere.  I am not sure the Nationals did anything “wrong” in this process, but receiving cash considerations for a once highly-acclaimed prospect feels like a disappointing end to Cole’s career in Washington.

Struggling AJ Cole Needs A Change Of Scenery

Wednesday evening the weary Washington Nationals bullpen suffered a collapse and got smoked like a Willie Nelson “cigarette”, to the tune of 9 runs in the 8th inning.  The dagger came when AJ Cole, now pitching in relief after losing the 5th starter role to Jeremy Hellickson, served up a mammoth grand slam home run to Yoenis Cespedes.  This elevated his ERA this season to 13.06 and left many Nationals’ fans, myself included, wondering what the next step is for AJ Cole’s career in Washington.

Cole does not have any minor league options remaining, meaning the Nationals would have to expose him to waivers before sending him to the minor leagues, where he would likely be claimed by another team.  This leaves Washington’s front office in a difficult spot, as Cole needs work in the minor leagues to refine his mechanics and regain his confidence, yet they do not wish to lose him for nothing.

For the record, I have probably been Cole’s biggest fan in NatsTown the past several years, as I watched him in high school and imagined his projectable frame and intriguing 4-pitch repertoire developing into a mid-rotation quality starting pitcher.  While raw like sushi, the 18-year-old Cole possessed a low-90s sinking fastball, a promising changeup and the ability to spin a breaking ball.

Today the 26-year-old Cole still has those attributes, but has not been able to improve the consistency of his breaking pitches, nor his fastball command.  This leaves him susceptible to plenty of walks and lengthy home runs.  However, when he finds his groove, as he did against Atlanta earlier this month and in 52 innings last year, Cole has major league quality stuff and can get major league hitters out.  Other major league teams have certainly taken notice of this, and would be foolish not to claim him, gambling that a change of scenery could unlock his potential.

Considering the number of teams actively “rebuilding” this year, it would be shocking to see Cole go unclaimed through waivers, as clubs always need extra pitching during the season.  It would not surprise me to see the White Sox claim him and allow noted pitching guru Don Cooper the opportunity to work with him.  Perhaps the Pittsburgh Pirates and pitching coach Ray Searage might want the chance to revamp his repertoire to improve his performance.  Or could Tampa Bay attempt to work their magic on another talented, yet inconsistent young pitcher.

Unfortunately due to his poor start to the season, roster limitations and the team’s goal of winning in 2018, it feels like AJ Cole’s time as a Washington National is rapidly coming to a close.  I fear Cole will emerge in a new situation and become a productive major league pitcher, a habit Washington has recently developed.  Just in the past two years, the Nationals have traded inconsistent young pitchers like Felipe (Rivero) Vazquez, Nick Pivetta and Blake Treinen, only to see them establish themselves for other teams.  Circumstances have boxed the team into a corner, but I predict a Change of Scenery will make AJ Cole the latest pitcher Washington wishes they had kept in the organization.

*Originally published at MASNSports.com on 4/20/18*

Zimmerman Deserves Criticism For Team’s Early Struggles

In a rather quiet spring training for the Nationals, one of the biggest storylines for the team leaving West Palm Beach was the unique decision by Ryan Zimmerman to play only in one spring training game.  Zimmerman instead preferred to get his work accomplished on the back fields, in games consisting of predominantly minor leaguers.  Certainly the fans that traveled to watch the team were disappointed to miss the “Face of the Franchise”, but also left themselves questioning the wisdom of this decision.

Ryan Zimmerman believes spring training is too long and there is merit to this, as the multiple weeks are more important to stretch out starting pitchers than getting hitters prepared for the opposing pitchers.  And Zimmerman has struggled with injuries the past several years, except in 2017, when he was one of the top first baseman in baseball, so he felt that playing in a more relaxed environment would be more conducive to staying healthy.

Unfortunately through the first 13 games of the season, this experiment looks like a bigger bust than Homer Simpson’s “The Homer”, as Zimmerman is batting .103/.186/.231 with 11 strikeouts in 39 at-bats.  He appears to be out of rhythm at the plate, avoiding fastballs in the strike zone and swinging at breaking pitches in the dirt. Furthermore, he has looked shaky defensively at first base, failing to make a couple plays in the field, and has not looked spy on the bases.

His struggles thus far have had a large effect on the team’s lack of offensive production, as he is the cleanup hitter and lineup protection behind Bryce Harper.  Washington has scored 2 runs or fewer in 6 of the team’s first 13 games, and Harper is currently tied for most walks in the National League with 16.  Opposing teams are choosing to pitch around Harper, who is hitting .286/.467/.714 with 6 home runs, and taking their chances with Zimmerman.

Which goes back to his decision to essentially avoid facing major league quality pitching all spring in order to protect himself from injury.  Manager Davey Martinez is new to the organization and a first-time manager, so he is in a difficult position to challenge Zimmerman on this unusual decision in February or move him down in the order before May 1st.

If I can digress a moment – A few years ago I was at a minor league game watching a big league player on a rehab assignment, and I was sitting next to an experienced scout.  I asked him his thoughts on the value of these rehab games for established major leaguers and he responded “good for their confidence but how can you prepare for big league stuff against guys in A-ball?”

This leads back to my point – While I do not believe this slump will have a large effect on his overall production in 2018, Zimmerman’s decision to avoid spring training games is perhaps the biggest reason Washington is currently 6-7 and in 4th place in the division.  Without question, it is early, but Washington will continue to struggle offensively until Zimmerman rounds into form or is dropped in the batting order.

*Originally published at MASNSports.com on 4/13/18

Matt Grace is DC Baseball’s Best Kept Secret

Recently an entertainer in World Wrestling Entertainment named Buddy Murphy began calling himself “Professional Wrestling’s Best Kept Secret” – with all due respect to his creative catchphrase, I believe we should start calling Washington Nationals’ reliever Matt Grace “D.C. Baseball’s Best Kept Secret”.

Last season Grace was quietly effective for the Nationals, producing a 4.32 ERA, 1.360 WHIP and 31 strikeouts against 18 walks over 50 innings pitched.  An 8th round pick by Washington in the 2010 MLB Draft from UCLA, Grace steadily rose through Washington’s minor league system before reaching the majors in 2015.  The 29-year-old Grace does a solid job minimizing home runs and inducing ground balls, with a career 61.1% ground ball ratio.  Grace is especially effective against left-handed hitters, allowing a meager .232/.315/.235 batting line in 2017.

In addition, Grace brings a unique element to the Nationals’ relief corps, notably his ability to throw multiple innings, as he threw 2 or more innings 8 separate times in 2017.  Grace does not overwhelm with his pure stuff, as his sinking fastball sits around 91mph and he has a good, but not great slider; however he locates his pitches well and has some natural deception in his delivery to disrupt opposing hitters’ rhythm.

Now the 2018 season has arrived and Washington has a new, forward-thinking manager Dave Martinez at the helm.  And certainly there is little question that Washington’s “A bullpen” consists of Brandon Kintzler in the 7th, Ryan Madson in the 8th and Sean Doolittle serving as the closer to finish games.  However, the inconsistency of fellow left-handed relievers Enny Romero and Sammy Solis leaves an obvious void in Washington’s bullpen for a left-handed relief specialist.  Furthermore, the composition of Washington’s current bullpen lacks anyone experienced pitching multiple innings on a consistent basis.   Already this season we have seen Martinez use Grace in four of the team’s first six games, both in a multi-inning role to finish a game and in the middle innings to combat a tough left-handed hitter.

The National League East is filled with many top left-handed batters, namely Freddie Freeman, Jay Bruce and Michael Conforto – Matt Grace should see plenty of opportunities this summer to try and neutralize these talented lefties.  Also, Washington’s lack of a solid #5 starter and the absence of a true long-reliever should also give Grace multiple opportunities to pitch this season.  Therefore, the team’s bullpen will be counting on Grace’s ability to both neutralize quality left-handed hitters and occasionally pitch multiple innings in 2018.

Much like a Swiss Army Knife, you do not realize how valuable Matt Grace’s versatility is until you need him and Washington will be counting on him as a vital component of their relief corps this season.  Now, is there any chance we can convince him to enter each game to a loud “shushing” sound?

*Originally published at MASNSports.com on 4/6/18*