He doesn’t have the track record to suggest he’s assured of a spot on the opening day roster, but club officials willingly admit he’s the likely No. 5 starter. He’s out of options, so he’ll have to make the team somehow or else be placed on waivers. And none of this may matter if the Nats decide to go for broke and just sign Jake Arrieta or one of the other established free agents still available even as the calendar switches to March.
How, then, do the Nationals want the 26-year-old right-hander to approach his spring training appearances, the first of which came this afternoon against the Braves?
“Look, do we think he’s our fifth starter? Yeah,” manager Davey Martinez said before the game. “But he has to compete, and he knows that. I want all these guys to compete every day.”
There wasn’t a whole lot for Martinez and his staff to evaluate today during Cole’s two-inning start. He labored in the bottom of the first, throwing first-pitch strikes to only one of the five batters he faced. He was much better in the bottom of the second, getting ahead in the count to all four batters faced and striking out a pair on sliders.
“Pretty good, for my first game,” he said. “I worked a lot on getting my off-speed (pitches) ready during the offseason. And I felt like I did a pretty good job. Mound was a little soft. I made some adjustments in the second inning and I felt a lot better.”
This isn’t Cole’s first rodeo with the Nationals. He’s in big league camp for the fourth consecutive spring. He made his major league debut in 2015, giving up nine runs in two innings at Turner Field during what ultimately would be best remembered as “The Dan Uggla Game.” He started eight games in 2016, then returned last season to make 11 appearances (eight starts).
But he’s always been seen as more of a fill-in than a permanent member of what otherwise has been a star-studded Nationals rotation throughout his tenure, and this spring is no different. He’s the club’s No. 5 starter - until they find a better option, whether that happens before camp breaks at the end of the month or sometime later this summer.
If Cole has his way, none of that will happen. He’s determined to show club officials that he’s the best option, that he’s ready to take the next step and become a permanent member of the rotation.
“I want to be up there, and I want to be on this team and do whatever I can to help them,” he said. “Fifth starter, whatever starter, I want to be a starter for this team.”
Cole worked hard over the winter to put himself in the best position to seize this job. He worked on perfecting his slider and changeup so they’d already be in top form by the time he arrived in West Palm Beach. And he bulked up, finally adding some heft to his lean, 6-foot-5 body.
“We’ve been trying to get him more physical since the day we drafted him,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “If you remember the day we drafted him, he was very, very thin and wiry. Tall, wiry guy. We figured with just natural maturity that he would put on natural strength and weight. He’s done that. He’s followed the progression each and every time he would come to spring training, and he’s a man right now. He’s grown up.”
What tangible difference has Cole noticed with the extra weight?
“It just helps with longevity,” he said. “The stamina and everything behind it. My arm feels a lot better. The weight in the legs, the strength, it just all seems to help throughout the season.”
The real test of that will come later in the spring, once starters have been stretched out and are free to throw 80 to 100 pitches, and then especially in the regular season, when the intensity level ratchets up and there are no easy innings on the mound.
Cole just wants to get the opportunity to be on the mound then. Maybe the Nationals will make a move that bumps him out of the spot. But until they do, he’s going to do whatever he can to discourage them from doing that.
And they’re more than willing to give him a shot.
“We’re going to run the best five starters we can out there, and if A.J. is that guy, he’ll be out there,” Rizzo said. “If he’s not, he’ll compete for a bullpen spot. I think that he may have the leg up, just because of the way he pitched last year down the stretch. He was a really good starting pitcher for us, and he’s a guy that we drafted, developed, signed, traded away, got him back and we think that his best days are ahead of him.”