Name: A.J. Cole
Height/Weight: 6'4''/180 pounds
How Acquired: Traded along with Derek Norris, Brad Peacock and Tom Milone for Gio Gonzalez and Robert Gilliam on December 22, 2011. Originally drafted by the Washington Nationals in the fourth round in 2010.
Over the past few years, the Washington Nationals have used "over slot" bonuses to stock up with talent through the Major League Baseball amateur draft. No year was more indicative of this strategy than 2010, when the Nationals inked several high-profile picks to above-slot bonuses. The most high profile of these signings was number one overall pick Bryce Harper, but Cole didn't trail far behind Harper in the headlines. Taken in the fourth round, Cole was inked to a $2 million bonus, the highest ever given out to a player taken in the fourth round (ironically the bonus eclipsed the record set the previous year by the Oakland A's when they signed Max Stassi to a $1.5 million deal after taking him in the fourth round).
Before the draft, Cole was considered one of the top high school pitchers in America and most draft pundits projected that the Florida native would go in the first 20 picks. Even though Cole put together a strong high school All-Star tournament season, teams backed away from him in the first round on draft day because of his reported bonus demands, his commitment to the University of Miami and some questions about his health. It was a bit of an upset when the Nationals took him in the fourth round and were actually able to get him into their system.
Cole signed mere days before the August deadline, so he threw only one official inning in his professional debut season. Pitching for the short-season Vermont Lake Monsters (now an A's affiliate), Cole tossed a scoreless frame with one strike-out and one walk. He got his feet wet professionally later that fall at the Nationals' Instructional League camp.
At the start of the 2011 season, the Nationals were conservative with Cole, initially holding him back in Florida for extended spring training. There was talk that he would pitch in Florida until June and then report to Vermont for the New York-Penn League season, but Cole pitched well enough that the Nationals sent him out to the full-season South Atlantic League on May 7. He would spend the rest of the year in the Hagerstown Suns' starting rotation.
Cole was the youngest pitcher on the Suns' roster at 19 years old, but he held his own against a league filled with collegiate draft picks and second-year pros. In 89 innings, Cole posted a 4.04 ERA with a 108:24 K:BB ratio. Batters hit .251 against him and he allowed six homeruns.
Ironically, Cole's ERA increased towards the end of the season despite the fact that his velocity also increased and his homer rate dropped. The right-hander allowed five homeruns over his first seven outings and then gave up only one more the rest of the season, despite being a flyball pitcher throughout the year. Cole was kept on a tight pitch count by the Nationals throughout the season and he never threw more than 27 innings in any one month. His highest workload month was August, during which he had the highest ERA and BB/9 of any month during the season, but he also had his best K/9 month.
Coming out of high school, Cole's best pitch was his fastball, which was regularly clocked in the 92-94 MPH range. That pitch continued to be his best offering in 2011. Cole began the season with his fastball sitting in the 91-93 range, but he saw his velocity tick up later in the season, when he was sitting 93-95 and occasionally touching 97. He also spotted the two-seam and four-seam fastballs well.
Cole's other two pitches – a change-up and a curveball – weren't as effective for him in 2011, although both were improved over his high school days. Cole's change-up is a relatively new pitch to him and he is just now starting to use it in important in-game situations. It is a pitch that figures to get a lot of attention from the A's coaching staff. Cole's curveball is a little more advanced and he used it most frequently to off-set the fastball. A "power" curve, the pitch has a tight break and is generally clocked in the 77-81 MPH range. He still needs refinement with the pitch, but it was an effective weapon for him against Low-A competition last season.
At 6'4'', 180, Cole is tall and lanky with broad shoulders and what scouts call a "projectable" frame. As he gains weight, he may add more velocity to his fastball, an enticing thought considering how hard he already throws. Despite being one of the youngest players in the Sally League last season, Cole demonstrated a calm demeanor on the mound and rarely seemed intimidated by the competition. Cole worked through a few nagging injuries while in high school, but was healthy in 2011.
Although Cole's command of his secondary pitches is still a work in progress, his overall control is excellent, especially for a young pitcher. He struck-out four-and-a-half batters for every batter he walked and managed 10.9 strike-outs per nine innings pitched. Those numbers are a big reason why most observers felt he pitched significantly better than his 4.04 ERA would indicate.
Of all of the players acquired by the A's this off-season, Cole has arguably the most potential upside given his frame and his arm strength. However, he also is a considerable risk being only 20 years old (he turned 20 in early January). It will likely be at least two years before the A's truly know what they have in Cole.
Given his success in the Low-A Sally League in 2011, Cole should start the 2012 campaign with High-A Stockton. The California League will present a challenge for Cole, whose flyball tendencies could get him in trouble in some of the smaller parks in the southern part of the league. He will draw comparisons to former A's prospects Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill, both of whom pitched in the Cal League for Stockton as 20-year-olds. Cole isn't as polished as either of those two were at the start of their year-20 seasons, but Cole arguably has better raw stuff than Anderson or Cahill.