Detroit Tigers should claim RHP A.J. Cole

The Detroit Tigers have an opportunity to add a former top prospect in right-hander A.J. Cole, who was just designated for assignment by the Nationals.

The Detroit Tigers have turned some heads so far this season, sporting an 8-10 record coming off a sweep of the Baltimore Orioles and a pair of walk-off wins against the Kansas City Royals. Perhaps the biggest cause of their unexpected success has been their starting rotation. Veteran’s Francisco Liriano (2.55 ERA) and Mike Fiers (3.86) have looked good so far. Matthew Boyd has dominated, and Michael Fulmer looks like his old self after one bad start.

Still, as a rebuilding team the Tigers should always be looking at ways to improve the club. While the days of trading for a star slugger at the trade deadline are gone, the team should be looking at smaller ways to add depth and potentially improve the long-term outlook of the club.

One way they can do that is to place claims on recently designated for assignment (DFA’d) players. And one player in particular could be an interesting addition for the Tigers, either as starting pitcher depth or a bullpen piece. That would be former Nationals right-hander A.J. Cole.

A Top-100 Prospect

A.J. Cole was originally drafted as the first pick in the fourth round of the 2010 MLB Draft by the Nationals. He was traded just over a year later to the Oakland A’s, along with Tommy Milone, Derek Norris and Brad Peacock in exchange for left-hander Gio Gonzalez. The Nationals apparently had trader’s remorse, as they acquired him back from the A’s in 2013 along with Blake Treinen in a three-team deal that netted the A’s John Jaso and the Mariners Mike Morse.

Meanwhile, Cole pitched well throughout the minor leagues and landed himself on 10 different top 100 prospects list, peaking as high as #30 before the 2015 season. After posting a 3.15 ERA in 105 innings at Triple-A, Cole made his big league debut at the end of the 2015.

Things haven’t gone as smoothly for Cole since then. After a small nine inning cameo in 2015, Cole was sent back to Triple-A in 2016. He posted a 4.26 ERA and just a 7.87 K/9, although his 3.47 xFIP indicates he got a little unlucky. Cole was given another chance at the show and posted a 5.17 ERA across eight starts, with a 9.16 K/9.

2017 was another ugly season split between both Triple-A and the Nationals. Although his 3.81 ERA with the Nats was the best of his career (so far) it was backed by a 5.20 FIP. After a disastrous start to 2018 (15 ER in 10.1 innings) Cole was DFA’d.

Cole is like so many pitching prospects who never quite reach their potential. The phrase TINSTAAPP stands for ‘There is no such thing as a pitching prospect’, and it effectively means that young pitchers are so volatile that it’s hard to hold high expectations for them.

Jumping on the Cole Train

Still, Cole is just 26 years old. Many pitchers have gone on to find success in the big leagues after a rocky start. For Cole, there’s a chance his redemption comes with a move to the bullpen.

Similar to our article about Daniel Norris converting to the bullpen, Cole has shown a lot of traits that suggest his performance would improve in a one-inning role. His fastball averages 92.3 miles per hour, but he can touch 96-97. In a short stint, Cole should be able to bring the mid-90’s for the entire duration.

Also similar to Norris, Cole has a handful of secondary offerings that haven’t had much success at the big league level. His change up in particular has been smacked around, and is a pitch he needs to retire altogether. His slider and curveball have each had their moments, but Cole could benefit from focusing on developing one of them and become a two-pitch pitcher.

Lastly, although the sample size is pretty small, Cole has already found more success coming out of the pen in the big leagues. In 16.1 innings as a reliever, Cole has held opponents to a .226/.277/.508 slash line. His 4.41 ERA isn’t great (or even good) by any means, but it’s better than what he has shown as a starter. Likewise, he has a 1.10 WHIP as a reliever, thanks to a 2.20 BB/9, nearly half what he has as a starter.

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Verdict

A.J. Cole probably won’t blossom into the star many had hoped for. The best the Tigers can hope for is an above average reliever. More than likely, he ends up in the middle innings for his career. Still, the Detroit Tigers have no reason not to pursue claiming him if they can. Rebuilding teams have a great opportunity to find hidden gems on the bargain bin. The Detroit Tigers need to always be shopping.