Breaking down why the Nats remain high on A.J. Cole

At Thursday’s press conference at Nationals Park, Nats general manager Mike Rizzo said he feels “very fortunate” to have gotten the package that he did in return for Michael Morse, who was under contract for only one more season.

That package consisted of right-handed prospects A.J. Cole and Blake Treinen, and a player to be named later, who will be selected from a list of a couple of guys the Nationals and Athletics agreed upon.

Cole is the big name in the group acquired from the A’s, a guy who Rizzo referred to as a “premium prospect.” He was the centerpiece of the Gio Gonzalez trade last winter, the prospect that Rizzo had the toughest time parting with. And now, just 13 months later, he’s back in the Nationals’ system.

You might wonder why the A’s would be willing to part with Cole if he’s viewed as such a talented young hurler. If you look at Cole’s numbers from last season, you also might wonder whether the Nationals still feel Cole has as promising of a future as they did when they dealt him last year.

This clearly is a guy Rizzo and the Nats’ brass like; they drafted him in the fourth round in 2010 and signed him to a $2 million bonus, a record for the most money ever given to a fourth-round selection. They feel the kid has talent, but are their hopes for him still as high as they were before Cole put up a disappointing stat line at high Single-A ball this last season and found himself demoted to low Single-A?

The short answer is yes. The Nats saw Cole struggle mightily at the A’s high Single-A affiliate in Stockton to begin the 2012 season, going 0-7 with a 7.82 ERA in eight games. Cole allowed 60 hits in 38 innings, and opposing batters hit a whopping .364 off him.

He was able to rebound after getting bumped down to low-A Burlington, and finished the season with a 2.07 ERA in 19 starts at that level, striking out 102 and walking just 19 in 95 2/3 innings.

A large part of the reason why Cole’s numbers at high-A don’t concern Rizzo and the Nats is because Stockton plays in the California League, a league in which the conditions often allow hitters to feast on young pitching.

This last season, the lowest ERA posted by a starter in the California League, which holds 10 teams, was 3.58. Compare that to the high-A Carolina League here on the east coast, which holds only eight teams and had six pitchers post ERAs under 3.58.

The Nats scouted Cole heavily during his stint in the California League, and while they saw some mechanical issues with his delivery, they also believe the conditions played a major factor in producing that lofty ERA.

“I remember at High Desert, the wind blew out literally at 20 mph straight out every night and it was like 100 degrees out,” Rizzo said. “So you get rewarded for fly balls, and the ground’s like cement, so you get rewarded for groundballs. We had two or three home run champions. (Dan) Uggla hit like 35 there one year. So you really have to take the numbers with a grain of salt.

“Look at the numbers. Do the research. (Cole’s) got good stuff. We played in High Desert for years when I was with Arizona. (Former Diamondbacks All-Star starter) Brandon Webb’s ERA was in the 6.00s. You just really have to take those pitching numbers, and the hitting numbers, with a grain of salt. Specifically in a couple of those parks.”

Treinen also spent the 2012 season at Stockton, so the Nats will take that into account when examining his 4.37 ERA in 24 games (15 starts), as well.

Cole’s stock might not be quite as high as it was a year ago in the eyes of some scouts, but the Nats still see lots of upside in the 21-year-old righty and feel he will move through their organization quickly.

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