LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — A.J. Cole lived a glutton’s dream this winter. He ate everything, and then some, between workouts. Meat and vegetables. Pasta shells, lots of pasta shells, and more carbs. Carbs on carbs. When he was full, he ate some more. It wasn’t quite a Michael-Phelps-Olympic-year diet, but it could have satisfied your neighborhood offensive lineman. He hated it.
“It sucked,” he said.
The 6-foot-5 Cole stuffed his face because he believes some extra weight could be the difference in him finally sticking at the major league level. After gaining weight to pitch at 225 pounds last season, Cole reported to camp a couple weeks ago weighing 240 for his first legitimate chance at breaking camp on the Opening Day roster.
“From the years past, the little weight that I put on, it seemed like it helped my arm, helped take the stress off my arm,” Cole said. “It gave me more strength in my legs. It made my body feel fresher throughout the year.”
As it stands, Cole is the favorite to take the final spot in Washington’s starting rotation. But that’s if the Nationals don’t splurge on one of the three prominent starters still on the free agent market: Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb or Lance Lynn. Arrieta has been the most connected of the three with the Nationals in the rumor mill. His agent, Scott Boras, whose history with the Nationals is well-documented, met with Washington ownership early in the offseason to discuss the former Chicago Cubs right-hander. Each side presented its idea of a fair contract. They realized they were far, far apart.
But that was nearly four months — and a shockingly dawdling free agent cycle — ago. The Nationals have set a price on Arrieta and are willing to do business if Arrieta’s demands match. But the Nationals haven’t engaged on Arrieta recently, according to people with knowledge of the situation. Instead, three other teams have been in contact, though that doesn’t signify the Nationals are out of the running.
While Arrieta would provide the Nationals a proven No. 3 starter with significant playoff experience to pitch behind Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg in October, they could also wait to acquire one before the trade deadline and work with their internal options against what’s expected to be a lousy division. In addition, the Nationals would have to surrender their second- and fifth-highest picks in June’s draft and $1 million in international bonus pool money if they sign Arrieta because he received the qualifying offer from the Cubs.
Cole stands to benefit if Washington stands pat. Nationals officials have said they were impressed with how Cole recovered from a forgettable stint in the minors — he had a 5.88 ERA in 18 starts with Class AAA Syracuse — to finish with a 3.00 ERA over his final eight outings in the majors. Not having any minor league options left also helps his case. The Nationals, thin in major league-ready starting pitching depth beyond their top four, would rather not risk losing him.
“Look, do we think he’s our fifth starter? Yeah,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “But he has to compete, and he knows that. I want all these guys to compete every day.”
Before Cole made his spring training debut against the Atlanta Braves on Thursday, a game that Washington won, 6-2, Martinez said he wanted Cole to focus on throwing first-pitch strikes. He failed to do so against four of the five batters he faced in the first inning, but he escaped a two-on, two-out jam. He found his rhythm in the second inning, throwing first-pitch strikes to each of the four batters he encountered.
After surrendering a double to Rio Ruiz that was nearly tracked down at the wall by Brian Goodwin in left field, he struck out the final two batters to end his day. He allowed two hits, walked one and struck out three in his two innings. His fastball sat between 91 and 92 mph.
“I made some adjustments in the second inning, and I felt a lot better,” said Cole, who threw 22 of his 34 pitches for strikes.
After beginning his offseason throwing program by playing catch up to 120 feet with his wife, Christine, on a Florida cow pasture, Cole’s focus turned to improving his off-speed repertoire in bullpen sessions. It was sharp Thursday: His final two strikeouts came on sliders, and he got one of the two victims, Rob Brantly, to swing at a curveball in the dirt.
It was the start of what Cole hopes is a long year in a Nationals uniform. He stuffed his face to endure one.
“I want to be on this team and do whatever I can to help them,” Cole said. “Fifth starter, whatever starter. I want to be a starter for this team.”
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