With the departure of Jordan Zimmermann, and the expected loss of Doug Fister in free agency as well, the Nationals' starting rotation currently projects to look like this: Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Joe Ross and Tanner Roark. Top prospect Lucas Giolito is seen by some as the darkhorse No. 6, as he will participate in his first MLB spring training this year and is getting closer and closer to being major league-ready.
But what about A.J. Cole? Cole - who turned 24 on Monday - is another promising young right-hander in the Nationals organization and one that already got his first experience in the majors in 2015. Barring another offseason addition, Cole would seem to have at least an outside shot at competing for a starting spot in Viera.
Cole doesn't know what his role will be, whether that is starting in the majors or as a reliever, but in preparation for 2016 he has highlighted gaining weight as one of his primary goals.
"I found a new workout place and I'm really getting into it. I'm trying to put on a lot of weight," he explained. "Just to keep up stamina and everything like that because a lot of times you drop weight once you go into spring training, so I just wanted to get a little more weight and help the body out a little bit."
Cole was listed at 6-foot-5 and 200 pounds in 2015, but hopes to report to spring training much bigger than that. He is working with a nutritionist who has added more protein to his diet and is closely monitoring his calorie intake.
Cole pointed to stamina as a potential benefit of the added weight, but he wonders if it could help his velocity as well. Cole already boasts a mid-90s fastball.
"You never know. Sometimes it could help somebody gain velocity, sometimes you heard it's had people lose velocity. But at the same time I'm not just putting on the weight, like bad weight or anything like that. I'm always keeping the stretching and mobility and everything like that," he said.
Cole's first year with the Nationals did not go as well as he would have hoped, as he gave up six earned runs in three appearances (9.1 IP). Some in the Nats' organization wondered if they rushed his development by bringing him up too early.
But just having reached the majors, Cole believes, has benefitted him as a pitcher.
"When I got up here, you start listening to the guys talk, you pick their [brain] every once in a while. We have a lot of great guys on this staff, Gio [Gonzalez], [Max] Scherzer. Watching them pitch, I learn by watching a lot of times, I don't always have to ask and talk. I can do a lot by just watching somebody and then every now and then you can ask them and get little hints of how they approach certain guys and why they do certain things," he said.
Cole also explained how he learned a lot as a young kid watching John Smoltz. His family lived in Florida and Braves games were available on TV. Cole modeled much of his game after Smoltz, whom he says had similar pitching mechanics to how Cole now throws.
Smoltz is one of the best success stories in baseball history when it comes to pitchers who have thrived both as starters and relievers. Cole is ready for whatever the Nationals ask of him in 2016.
"Whatever they want me as right now. I love being a starter and that's what I've always been. But if they want me as a relief pitcher, or anything like that right now, that's what I'll do," he said.