The Oakland A's received an intriguing Christmas gift a few days before the annual holiday occurred when on December 22nd they opted to deal their lone 2011 All-Star representative, Gio Gonzalez, coupled with former Stockton starter, Robert Gilliam, in exchange for a plethora of minor league talent. Oakland was bestowed with a premier haul from the Washington Nationals, welcoming Brad Peacock, a major-league caliber starter notorious for his knuckle-curve, Tom Milone, who is already part of Oakland's 2012 rotation, Derek Norris, hailed as a possible successor at catcher to Kurt Suzuki, and A.J. Cole, the 20-year-old right-hander with arguably the highest talent ceiling of any of the players acquired.
Many pundits pointed to the inclusion of Cole in the deal as an early sign that the A's had "won" the swap. With the 2012 season finally here, Cole is suiting up for the A's High-A affiliate, the Stockton Ports, in search of constructing a resume worthy of an assent into the major leagues.
The native of Oviedo, Florida, an area known for its designation as a proverbial Eden for breeding athletic prowess, dazzled frequently throughout his high school career, posting a 0.93 ERA, 6-0 record and 84 strikeouts over the course of 60 innings pitched during his senior campaign at Oviedo High, a school boasting alumni such as former A's infielder Mark Bellhorn and a consistent stream of Olympians. This performance instantly vaulted him into an elite stature amongst MLB scouts, who projected Cole to depart off draft boards within the first 20 selections in 2010. However, his draft stock fell slightly when questions about his durability arose. In addition, organizations were extremely hesitant to select the lanky righty in the first few rounds based on his supposedly strong commitment to the University of Miami and his reportedly high demands for a signing bonus.
Eventually, Cole wound up within the grasp of the Washington Nationals who scooped up the prospect for a record $2 million dollar signing bonus, which shattered the mark previously set for the fourth round choice by Oakland's own Max Stassi a year earlier at $1.5 million dollars. Ironically, the two will be forming a battery throughout the 2012 season. Cole was a part of a Washington draft class that many considered one of the best in recent years, and included top prospects Bryce Harper, Rick Hauge and Sammy Solis.
Cole is now surrounded by a different group of talented players in the A's organization, and he is busy making the adjustment both to a new set of teammates and a new geographical location.
"It's been good. It's a lot more different from the East Coast to the West Coast, but I'm adjusting," Cole said.The 2012 campaign will be the first season in which Cole pitches regularly while following Pacific Standard Time. In 2010, he made his professional debut in the Northeast. Cole didn't have much of an opportunity to show his talents that season with short-season Vermont, allowing one walk, one strikeout and no runs in only one inning pitched.
In 2011, Cole suited up for the Nationals' Low-A affiliate, the Hagerstown Suns, based in Maryland. Cole exhibited tremendous composure as a teenager often competing against players three years older than him, compiling 89 innings pitched as a frontline starter for the Suns in the South Atlantic League. He made 18 starts for the Suns, walking only 24 and allowing only six home runs while accumulating 108 strikeouts that allowed his K/9 rate to balloon to 10.92 per nine innings. While the righty's ERA translated to a seemingly average 4.04, Cole amassed a 2.53 FIP, a statistic used to measure the aspects of the game that a pitcher directly controls utilizing walks, strikeouts and homers allowed, impressive numbers for a 19-year-old.
The question for Cole in 2012 is whether he can duplicate that success in the hitter-friendly California League. Cole's goals for 2012 are simple
"Basically knowing my capabilities, pounding the zone, and helping my team," Cole said.
The highly touted 6'4'', 180 pounder has the body type to be a frontline major league starter. Scouts have raved about the potential of his pitches, namely his fastball. Cole's velocity currently rests at 94-95 MPH and could increase as he gains strength on his wiry frame. His second-best pitch is his curveball that has steadily improved after his drafting by the Nationals. Cole frequently implements his off-speed specialty to baffle the opposition and he continues to improve his breaking pitch.
Cole's Achilles heel last season was his changeup, which while continuing to develop, has still yet to mature. He emphasized his desire to introduce the pitch to his arsenal and develop his comfort ability for the change in game situations.
"One priority is to add a third pitch instead of having just two," Cole said. "I'm basically working on my changeup and it's improving."
Dating back to his high school days, Cole has drawn some lofty comparisons, including to frontline MLB hurlers Matt Garza and Matt Cain. Cole has also drawn comparisons by some within the Oakland organization to former A's prospects Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson, not because of his pitch selection or delivery, but because of his advanced level of pitching at such a young age. Cahill, now with Arizona, and Anderson, currently recovering from Tommy John surgery, were both 20 years old when they were slotted in Stockton's rotation in 2008. Now Cole is duplicating that feat this season.
Despite these comparisons, Cole seems unfazed.
"It feels great to receive those comparisons but I still have to go out there and succeed and get it," Cole said.
Now officially acclimating himself to his West Coast surroundings, Cole intends upon dominating the California League en route to realizing his potential.