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.