April 28, 2015
The Situation: After spending over $200 million to add Max Scherzer to an already strong group of arms, the Washington Nationals were expected to have one of the best rotations in baseball. With May a few days away, things have not gone to plan in D.C.. The Nats are tied for the third worst record in MLB and sit in dead last in the N.L. East. Nationals pitchers have allowed 81 runs on the season. Scherzer hurt his thumb while batting last Thursday and will miss a start. Misfortune for Scherzer has created an opportunity for Cole to make his MLB debut. It might be only one spot start, but it’s also an audition and perhaps a chance for something to energize this team.
Background: Cole was an over-slot fourth-round pick out of Oviedo, FL, just outside of Orlando. The Nats gave him $2 million to forego playing at the University of Miami. His size, build and arm strength ticked three of the biggest boxes evaluators look for in a prep arm. The Nationals sent the righty to Oakland in the deal for Gio Gonzalez. He promptly left a poor impression with the A’s and got hit hard in the Cal League. A little over a year after trading him away the Nats reaquired Cole, sending Mike Morse to Seattle in a three-team trade. Cole has been working his way through Washington’s high minors the past couple seasons and has met with a good measure of success.
Scouting report: Cole has some arm strength out of a low 3/4 slot and his heater features arm-side run. I’ve never seen the big velos others have reported. He was 91-92 t95 for me one day and worked 88-92 t94 another. It’s a relatively simple delivery, but in my viewings Cole has had some trouble repeating his timing and often lost his release point. A long arm action in back contributes to the problem. He also throws with some effort and has a head jerk as he releases. A deceptive front side makes him a little bit of a tough pick up, but hitters get a clean look at the ball in back. Command has been inconsistent in my looks and Cole often missed out over the plate.
Cole lacks a real plus secondary, but the change (80-84 mph) projects as above average and he has some feel for the pitch. His low-80s slider is typically a slurvy offering with inconsistent shape and depth, but it flashes tight spin and late break at times. He also mixes in a softer curve (73-75) that rates as a distant fourth offering. All of his pitches come out of the same release point when he’s going well. Cole has the qualities necessary to help a team as a big-league starter, but the stuff and command fit best at the back of a rotation. I didn’t think there was an impact, front-line arm here, but it’s not hard to see Cole as a no. 4 starter and solid contributor.
Immediate big-league future: Cole looks like he’s going to get one start here in Atlanta. Whether he gets another will depend on Max Scherzer’s thumb rather than how Cole handles the Braves. This is very much a chance to make a positive impression with the big-league team, though. Very rarely does a team make it through the long season with all five guys in their rotation making 30-plus starts each. With a strong debut, Cole can make sure he’s the first name that comes to mind the next time the front office needs an arm. —Al Skorupa
Fantasy Impact: Long and lean, Cole takes advantage of his levers to pound the zone with his fastball, and shows the ability to pick up velo as the game goes on. He’ll mix in an above-average changeup and a usable slider, but the overall package doesn’t promise a front-end fantasy starter. Cole’s prospect status is built on his ability to eat innings as much as his ability to miss bats, and anticipating a smooth transition in his major-league debut could be asking a lot.
Given the highly temporary nature of his call-up, it’s hard to endorse much of anything on Cole outside of leagues that carry a minor league system—in which case he’s likely already owned. On a team with the Nats' talent (if not their recent ability to win games) he’s worth rostering as long as he’s in the majors, but going more than a few dollars wouldn’t be prudent since he’s unlikely to be here long. While he’s up, he should contribute adequately to strikeouts and WHIP, while giving you a solid chance at a win. —Craig Goldstein
Al Skorupa is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @alskor