GM Mike Rizzo and manager Davey Martinez on A.J. Cole

There have been some mixed signals between general manager Mike Rizzo and his field manager Dave Martinez on whether or not there is a competition for the 5th starter spot. Mike Rizzo was very clear on February 4th at the Hot Stove season ticket event.

“We’re used to in this organization to have one of the best starting rotations in the game,” Rizzo said at the Hot Stove event. “That’s not going to change. We have Scherzer, Stras, Gio and Roark. Our number five starter, you know, is A.J. Cole which is something I’m really looking forward to seeing where he’s at this year. If you look at his numbers last year, his last seven starts were outstanding. He pitched in eleven games last year in the big leagues with eight starts and had a 3.81 ERA… Look at the other teams in our division. See where that ERA ranks on those other staffs. Probably in the top three or four in all of those other staffs. We are looking for great things for him.”

Manager Dave Martinez opened camp with some thoughts on the fifth starter spot and said it was a competition with A.J. Cole as the frontrunner.

“Obviously, if A.J. goes out there and does what he’s capable of doing,” Dave Martinez said. “He threw a bullpen today, and he was phenomenal, I mean, he really was, and that was fun to see and very exciting, a fifth starter with that kind of arm and the way he pitched last year, finished up the season, he’s got the upper hand, but like I said, Spring Training is long.”

Mike Rizzo spoke with MASN yesterday and once again the question was asked about who is the fifth starter.

“We feel good about our rotation,” Rizzo said. “Our fifth [starter] we feel really good about A.J. Cole.”

Mike Rizzo seemed to soften a bit from what he said two weeks ago if you read between the lines. Previously he said that Cole “is” the fifth starter and yesterday’s comment seemed to indicate it is his job for now.

Many thanks to Don H. for forwarding Tom Boswell’s chat and Q&A from yesterday.

Question: How accurate are early impressions? As a spring training veteran, how accurate do you tend to find your impressions from the first couple of weeks? Have you often seen players and known right away he’s either en route to a big year or alternatively looking like a bust?

A: Thomas Boswell: The first time I saw Eddie Murray, then later Cal Ripken, take [batting] practice in Miami, I knew. (So did a lot of other people!) The first time I saw Stephen Strasburg pitch a side session while standing behind a screen a dozen feet behind the catcher I knew why players called him “Jesus.” (“Because when you first see that nasty ***, you just say, ‘Jeeeeus!!'”).

But this spring I’m pretty impressed with A.J. Cole’s stuff, the shape of his breaking ball. But I kinda liked him last spring, too. I can’t wait to see Victor Robles take BP. When Anthony Rendon first arrived, everybody gathered around the cage like they were about to see a space launch. Players know. And, after 40+ years, even sportswriters are sometimes pretty sure, based on what they see down here, especially in exhibition games.

It is good to hear other thoughts on A.J. Cole like Tom Boswell who has seen him throw two bullpen sessions. There was a time when Cole was a top High School prospect out of Oviedo High School near Orlando, Florida. He was committed to the University of Miami on a baseball scholarship. Teams did not waste a first round pick on him because most thought he was going to college. When Cole was still on the board in the 4th round, Mike Rizzo drafted Cole in that 4th round in 2010 and paid him 1st round money — actually record 4th round money of $2 million.

A.J. Cole 5th starter

During this off-season, Mike Rizzo has signed veteran starting pitchers like Tommy Milone and Edwin Jackson. Has Mike Rizzo just signaled to those veteran pitchers he signed to Minor League deals plus Erick Fedde that they are just competing for 6th man depth? The plan is to also add back Joe Ross after the All-Star break as additional depth as he returns from UCL surgery on his right elbow.

The statistics given by Mike Rizzo at the Hot Stove event regarding Cole is encouraging. From innings one-to-four, A.J. Cole has a 2.97 ERA, but then his ERA jumps to 9.00 in the 5th inning. All of these stats are based on small sample sizes. Cole only had eight MLB starts in 2017 and in six of those games made it into the 6th inning. There were no games in which Cole made it past the 6th inning. He must go deeper into games to be a viable starting pitcher for Dave Martinez‘s 2018 rotation.

If you’re an optimist, you have to be encouraged by the underlying positive stats. Fans should hope that Cole can improve once he enters the 5th inning and beyond. Cole has struggled when his pitch-count has climbed over 80 pitches.

Earlier, we wrote that Cole packed ten extra pounds onto his frame. The Nationals last year listed Cole at 6’5″ and 215 pounds leading us to expect Cole will weigh-in near 225 pounds this year, but inside word is the scale will really tip closer to 235 pounds as the 215 pounds last year was not accurate. Davey Martinez remarked that he was surprised at how big A.J. Cole is in-person.

There have been times that A.J. Cole has looked like a budding star in his career with a memorable highlight game when he beat Noah Syndergaard in 2016. Other times he has pitched well — only to tire out in the fifth or sixth innings. Cole never made it into the 7th inning to record an out in 2017, and that is what needs to improve.

Nationals’ fans are nervous for obvious reasons as they felt burnt with Ross Detwiler who had a similar frame as Cole. When Detwiler last played, his weight was listed at 210 pounds and had stamina issues. The hope here is that the Nats’ 26-year-old who has worked hard this off-season to add-on lower body girth is ready to compete. You could almost say it is Cole’s job to lose. There are some conspiracy theories that have been offered up like this tweet from @HalfStreetHeart on Twitter:

Cole throws the Jordan Zimmermann repertoire of 4-seam fastball, slider and curveball plus a changeup that is always “under construction”. Four years ago, Cole’s changeup was his best pitch. Since the beginning of 2016, the changeup has been A.J.’s worst pitch. The opposition hits it at a .348 batting average and a .565 slugging — that won’t cut it — but the encouraging news is Cole went back to his 2014 “self” and spent hours this off-season watching himself throwing the changeup. That video led him to retool his changeup this off-season. He has been working tirelessly at his craft, and Nats fans should respect any player who works so hard to improve.

Cole’s last start of 2017 which was a 6 inning/1 ER effort.

This information we have given you is the same information that Mike Rizzo and Davey Martinez have which is why they are so bullish on A.J. Cole and for the doubters — give A.J. Cole a chance and figure that Mike Rizzo has a Plan B. What that Plan B is could change in an instant.

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