On Wednesday evening, the weary Nationals bullpen suffered a collapse and got smoked like a Willie Nelson cigarette, to the tune of nine runs in the eighth inning. The dagger came when A.J Cole, now pitching in relief after losing the fifth starter role to Jeremy Hellickson, served up a mammoth grand slam home run to Yoenis CÃ©spedes. This elevated Cole's ERA this season to 13.06 and left many Nationals fans, myself included, wondering what the next step is for 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, and 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 (don't believe me, check NatsGM.com), as I watched him in high school and imagined his projectable frame and intriguing four-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 Pirates and pitching coach Ray Searage might want the chance to revamp his repertoire to improve his performance. Or could the Rays 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 Cole's time as a 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 Cole the latest pitcher Washington wishes they had kept in the organization.
Ryan Sullivan blogs about the Nationals at The Nats GM and runs The Nats GM Show podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @NatsGMdotcom. His views appear here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.