A.J. Cole, Robbie Ray together again at Potomac

Late in the winter, pitching prospect A.J. Cole received some weird news. One year after they traded for him, the Oakland A’s were shipping him out, to the very same team that dealt him to Oakland. The Nationals, who had parted ways with him less than two years after they gave him $2 million to sign out of the draft, wanted him back. “It’s all a strange world, how the game works,” Cole said.

Cole, a hard-throwing right-hander, did not mind. He had grown up in South Florida and liked playing on the East Coast. He would be reunited with friends, teammates and coaches from the 2011 season, his first full year in the minor leagues. He would be in the same Class A Potomac rotation as Robbie Ray, his roommate from 2011 in Hagerstown and, in many ways, the Nationals’ left-handed answer to Cole.

“It’s like I never left,” Cole said.

Following the trade of flamethrower Alex Meyer to the Twins for Denard Span, Cole and Ray became two of the Nationals’ best pitching prospects, together again at Potomac after initially winding professional careers. Cole struggled in the hitter-happy Cal League, got demoted and then got traded back in the three-way deal that sent Michael Morse to Seattle. Ray found his first obstacle in high-A last year, overhauled his mechanics and has become Potomac’s ace.

Cole and Ray, both 21, have been connected since the Nationals signed them both as high schoolers for well over slot in the 2010 draft. The Nationals enticed Cole, a fourth-rounder, with a $2 million bonus. They took Ray in the 12th round and signed him with a $799,000 bonus, the largest given to any player picked so late in the draft.

They had known about one another in high school, each showing up on the same lists of top high school pitchers. They met playing together for USA Baseball and on all-star teams. They became fast friends when they signed. Someday, maybe, they’ll pitch in the same Washington rotation.

“I don’t know if we ever really talked about that,” Cole said. “But that would be pretty cool if we actually made it at the same time. If made our debuts back-to-back, that would be pretty sweet.”

They are both making progress. As Ryan Zimmerman made a rehab assignment at Potomac last night, Ray continued his resurgence, striking out seven and allowing two earned runs against Carolina.

“He’s good,” Zimmerman said. “A lot of fastballs. A good, easy motion, and it comes out of his hand nice. He’s got a chance to be really good.”

Last year, Ray went 4-12 with a 6.56 ERA, 49 walks and 86 strikeouts in 105 2/3 innings at Potomac, hitting a wall in his first season above low-A. The hitters were better, far more aggressive, and every time he left a pitch up in the strike zone, it was hammered.

“I thought I was good in high school,” Ray said. “And then last year happened. It kind of put me in my place and showed me what I needed to work on. It’s been a journey, but it’s been a good one.”

Before his final start last year, Potomac pitching coach Chris Michalak and Ray decided to change his mechanics. He moved from low three-quarters delivery to a high three-quarters arm angle. He also added more a twist to motion. Ray kept working on the change throughout the instructional league and over the winter.

The change gave him more consistent location and a more deceptive motion. This season, throwing his fastball in the mid-90s, Ray has 41 strikeouts in 34 innings against 16 walks and a 1.85 ERA.

The showing has made the Nationals glad they convinced him to sign in 2010. Ray, who is from Tennessee, was prepared to honor his commitment to Arkansas after no team took him until the 12th round. On the day before the deadline to sign, the Nationals invited him to Nationals Park. He toured the field and watched a game next to owner Mark Lerner.

“They kind of made the decision for me,” Ray said. “I could be a Razorback right now. I feel like I’m in a better place.”

Cole signed on the same day, accepting the Nationals’ hefty signing bonus. They saw him as part of their future, but they parted with him in December 2011, the centerpiece of the trade that brought Gio Gonzalez to Oakland.

After the Nationals dealt Meyer to Minnesota for Span, General Manager Mike Rizzo felt he needed to backfill the top end of the Nationals’ minor league pitching corps. The first name he thought of was Cole’s. He engineered a three-team deal, shipping Morse to Seattle and getting back Cole and two other pitchers, hard-throwing Class AA right-hander Blake Treinen and lefty reliever Ian Krol.

Cole’s status had dimmed a bit in Oakland. They sent him at first to high-A Stockton, part of the offensively extreme Cal League. He last eight starts, going 0-7 with a 7.82 ERA. The A’s demoted to low-A Burlington.

“At first, you’re kind of bummed about it,” Cole said. “I didn’t look at it as a bad thing. I just looked at it as a learning experience.”

Cole realized he had to pitch, not just throw his high-90s fastball and wipeout slider, which had always been enough to dominate in high school and Hagerstown. He started using his changeup more, which Cole said is now “a big part of my pitches.”

He rebounded in Burlington, and in his next chance at high-A, Cole has continued to move past his showing in Stockton. Cole has 25 strikeouts and six walks with a 4.85 ERA in 25 innings this season. Manager Brian Daubach said he’s pitched better than his ERA indicates.

“Just the mindset behind the whole thing, it’s come a long way for me,” Cole said.

Adam Kilgore covers the Nationals for The Washington Post.
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