FORT MYERS, Fla. -- When the Nationals traded away some of their rotation depth this offseason, it increased the importance of right-hander A.J. Cole, the team's No. 9 prospect as rated by MLBPipeline.com. He owns the most big league starting experience of the remaining pitchers behind the starters, and he would almost certainly be the next in line if the Nationals suffer an injury in their rotation.
Washington's rotation is set, but it does have some question marks. Max Scherzer has a stress fracture in his right ring finger that has been slow to heal this offseason, and his status for Opening Day is unclear. Stephen Strasburg has made every start in a season only once in his career. And Joe Ross is coming off a shoulder injury that robbed him of two months of his 2016 season and has him altering his mechanics.
With Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez both traded to the White Sox, Cole seems likely to have a chance to make an impact in Washington at some point in 2017 and be the first guy called upon.
"Even when [Giolito and Lopez] were here, I was still trying to be that guy," Cole said after allowing four runs on four hits in 1 2/3 innings in Sunday's 5-2 loss to the Twins. "I especially want to be here and I want to help this team. I know I can. So if I can get the chance to get that ball, I want it."
Cole threw nearly 50 pitches before his outing was done Sunday, but he said he still felt strong by the end, a nod to a weight gain this offseason that has taken him from 214 pounds at the start of 2016 to 229 at the start of camp. He says it will help improve his strength and stamina, but perhaps it also could help his velocity. Stadium radar guns are often unreliable and inaccurate, but at one point the scoreboard at Hammond Stadium read 95 mph. His fastball averaged 92 mph on the season last year, according to Brooks Baseball.
"He worked hard this winter," Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. "He worked real hard to gain some muscle strength. I heard this is how he threw when he first got here. So perhaps he's back to where he was."
Jamal Collier covers the Nationals for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.