There are a lot of reasons not to like Bartolo Colon. He’s 41 years old. He has a 50-game suspension for synthetic testosterone in the recent past, and he underwent controversial stem cell treatments before that. He pitched a grand total of 257.1 innings in a span of five years between the ages of 33 and 37. When he bats, he looks like this and this, and he still has $11 million coming to him for his age-42 season next year — along with the million-plus left on this year’s $9 million. If we’re thinking about the Moneyball scouts who (probably really didn’t) prioritize selling jeans over winning baseball games, Colon is the guy they were thinking about.
For all those reasons, and who knows how many others, Colon went unclaimed through the waiver process earlier this week. If the paragraph above was all you knew about the man, that would make a lot of sense. A fat, old, expensive pitcher who doesn’t throw hard or strike people out shouldn’t draw interest. Big deal, right?
Maybe it’s not. It’s probably not, because Colon is no ace. And yet it still raised a few eyebrows around the game, because Colon, for all his considerable flaws, is well into his fourth consecutive season of being a useful major league pitcher. And that’s after an earlier career portion that had eight seasons of being a useful — or better — major league pitcher. There’s a select few contenders Colon couldn’t help right now. There’s plenty more that could benefit, and there’s precious little pitching available. So why is he still a New York Met?
Perhaps the better question is, “Why didn’t a team claim him off waivers?” That’s a little easier to answer. Teams reportedly still want Colon, but they don’t want to have the entire $11 million bill handed to them for 2015, so the minuscule possibility that the Mets would have just thrown up their hands and said “Take him” to an interested suitor seems to have been enough to scare off all of baseball. Instead, it seems as though teams would prefer to ask the Mets to subsidize some portion of that 2015 salary, and perhaps a potential claiming team would rather have the flexibility of the full time remaining before the Aug. 31 deadline rather than the artificial 48-hour time limit a waiver claim imposes. That seems flimsy compared to the risk a competitor would have put in a claim and prevent you from having any opportunity at all, but it seems to be the case.
Let’s talk about that 2015 salary for a minute. There are 96 players on the books for at least $10 million next year, which is what Colon’s hit against the luxury cap would be since it goes by average annual value. Edwin Jackson is one of them. So are Matt Harrison, Joe Nathan, Bronson Arroyo, Ricky Nolasco, Ubaldo Jimenez, John Danks, Nick Swisher, Carlos Beltran, Andre Ethier, Tim Lincecum, Carl Crawford, Ryan Howard and Alex Rodriguez. Either due to injury or ineffectiveness or both, that is a highly-paid collection of players who have added little — or worse, subtracted much — in 2014.
That so many other players are making that much money doesn’t automatically mean that Colon is worth it, of course, but it does mean $11 million isn’t unreasonable for a pitcher who is still contributing. At the risk of going all “It’s not my money” on you, baseball is overflowing with cash. It’s a lot to me and to you. It’s not that much for a year of a solid starting pitcher.
That’s what Colon has been, anyway. Since his career rebirth in 2011 with the Yankees, here’s how he’s ranked among starters:
None of that is at a star’s level, and none of it is intended to be. But it’s absolutely “solid major league pitcher” quality, and he’s about to complete his fourth straight year of being a 2-3 win pitcher. Colon, improbably, based on his age and body type, keeps taking the ball, and keeps getting hitters out, despite continuing to throw little but fastballs. It’s not without risk, as Eno noted when Colon signed with the Mets. But Colon’s easily been worth what he’s been paid so far, and another year of the same performance would be worth the $11 million, as well. The counter-argument that he’ll be 42 and has seen his velocity dip somewhat is valid, though Colon has broken most of the usual aging curves. Besides, only eight pitchers have made more starts this year of seven innings or more, and while that doesn’t automatically equal quality, you’ll see that the others on that list comprise the absolute elite of baseball pitching royalty.
Of the teams potentially interested, the Angels would seem like the obvious choice to want Colon, considering Garrett Richards and Tyler Skaggs are hurt, C.J. Wilson and Jered Weaver are declining, and Matt Shoemaker, as fun as he’s been, is hardly an ideal candidate to front a playoff rotation. They fished Wade LeBlanc out of the recycling bin, ditched him after one start, and currently don’t have a starter for Saturday’s game against Oakland — which is, you know, kind of a big deal in a division that has the two separated by one game. Possible fill-ins include Randy Wolf and Chris Volstad. Seriously.
But for them, cost is a concern:
The Angels already have more than $140 million committed to 10 players in tax payroll (teams are charged the average annual value of multi-year contracts for tax purposes).
Owner Arte Moreno is adamant that the team will not surpass the threshold, according to rival clubs that have spoken to the Angels.
Next year is when Mike Trout‘s extension starts to hit the tax even harder than the actual dollars do, so there’s some validity to that, even though it arguably shouldn’t be enough to prevent the team from acquiring Colon. Not only did we see how awfully the Yankees’ plan to stay under $189 million backfired, but it’s certainly possible for the Angels to get Colon for the stretch run and flip him this winter, potentially even if they had to kick in a little to make it happen. Total, maybe that’s several million dollars. You can value playoff wins however you like, but there’s no way the Angels will ever have games that are more valuable to them than the ones over the next six weeks will be. If you’re willing to sign guys like Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton to obvious win-now deals, you shouldn’t be shying away when things get tough.
The Angels aren’t the only team, though. Some teams have a good idea that they’re going to the playoffs and don’t know who would start a potential Game 3 or Game 4. The Dodgers have injury concerns about Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu, and a whole lot of guys who aren’t Clayton Kershaw — namely Dan Haren, Kevin Correia and Roberto Hernandez. The Pirates are still starting Edinson Volquez and are watching Vance Worley‘s explosive regression, which is a great band name. The Tigers have started Buck Farmer and will start Kyle Lobstein. Kansas City has to worry about Yordano Ventura‘s back. The Angels, if they don’t go with Wolf or Volstad for Saturday’s game, may turn to Michael Roth, who has been nothing less than awful in his stints in the big leagues.
Jeff made an interesting point that some of these teams could do just as well by patching with internal options or expanded bullpens. He’s not wrong. There’s only so much value that a non-elite pitcher can add over a month of play, and Colon is a non-elite pitcher. If he’s worth a half-win above replacement over the last month (ZiPS has him for 0.4, and we aren’t quibbling over tenths of a point in WAR) that might not sound like much. The thing is, some of these teams may not have replacement-level options, if we’re talking about guys like Wolf or Volstad or Farmer or Lobstein, and that sort of sinks the “R” in WAR. In the playoffs, when you’re not so much thinking about WAR as you are about what happens in that one game, it’s easy to think that Colon is a better option than some of the potential threes and fours we’re seeing.
The Mets would want some kind of talent in return for Colon, and that can’t be ignored. The cost here isn’t zero. The return on investment isn’t guaranteed. But if Colon is still a Met after this weekend, it’ll be interesting to see if any of these contending teams wind up regretting it.
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