If Monday night ends up being Bartolo Colon's last start in a Mets uniform, the rolly-poly right-hander went out in a big way.
With his name being bandied about ahead of Thursday's trade deadline, the 41-year-old Colon threw one of his best starts of the season, limiting the Phillies to one run in 7 2/3 innings in New York's 7-1 win. Though Colon gave up 10 hits, only two went for extra bases — back-to-back doubles in the eighth inning by Domonic Brown and Carlos Ruiz that knocked Colon out of the game. He further limited the damage by walking just one and striking out six to improve his strikeout-to-walk ratio to 5.3, which is 10th-best among qualified starters in baseball.
Colon's excellent start continued what's been a recent strong run for the 18-year veteran. It was the fourth time in his last five starts that Colon has completed seven or more innings, and in the month of July, Colon now has a 3.86 ERA in 35 innings. He's been hittable in that time, giving up 36 hits over those frames, but just like Monday, Colon has avoided major trouble by not giving up extra-base hits and limiting walks. Including Monday's start, Colon has walked just five of the 143 batters he's faced since July 5.
Colon hasn't been as close to ace-level as he was for the Athletics last season, but by his peripherals, he's been almost as good with the Mets. Monday's start lowered Colon's FIP to 3.41 — it was 3.23 last year — and his walk ratios continue to be exemplary. He's been slightly lucky on batting average on balls in play and in strand rate, but not to a level that would suggest a fluke, and his home runs-per-nine ratio is right in line with the league average (0.94 for Colon vs. 0.88 for MLB). On top of that, while Colon is getting fewer swings and fewer whiffs, he's still doing a good job of avoiding contact, even as he works with a fastball that averages 88 miles per hour on a good day.
The combination of Colon's fine work and the Mets' deficit in the division — even after Monday's game, they still trailed in the National League East by 7 1/2 games and in the NL wild card by 6 1/2 — has led to speculation that the veteran could be on the move at the deadline. A report back on July 14 from ESPN New York suggested that the Mets were making Colon available in trade talks, though there's been no further talk about any possible move. Whether that's because the Mets are asking for too much in return or because teams simply aren't interested in Colon isn't clear.
What's interesting is that Colon remains available — and without suitors — despite the fact that the pitching market has thinned drastically in the last month. Jeff Samardzija, Jason Hammel and Jake Peavy are all on new teams, and with the Rays having won 19 of their last 24 to claw back into the AL playoff picture, it's unknown if David Price will be on the move before or on Thursday. Ace options like Jon Lester and Cliff Lee remain available, but given their likely asking price (and in Lee's case, his actual price for 2014 and beyond), Colon would seem like a reasonable second-tier option for a team like Seattle or St. Louis that needs some veteran help in the back of the rotation.
What's more, unlike Peavy, who was just moved to San Francisco for two mid-level prospects, Colon isn't just a rental for 2014; he's under contract for next season at $11 million. On first glance, that seems like a steep price to pay for a pitcher who will be 42 next May and, to put it kindly, isn't in the best of shape. But Colon has shown an astonishing durability since re-emerging with the Yankees in 2011, breaking the 150-inning threshold every year since then (he's currently at 141 2/3 after Monday's start). What's more, his ERA+ in that span has been a sparkling 113. In the last four years, only 23 other pitchers have posted an ERA+ that high in a minimum of 600 innings pitched. Colon's arm or body could give out any day, but the same can be said of any of the other pitchers on that list. So far, Colon has shown no signs of slowing down.
Given the return on Peavy — who is having a markedly worse season and is set to be a free agent at season's end — it's likely that the Mets would do quite well in any Colon trade. But at the same time, there is an argument to be made for keeping him in Queens. While the Mets have an abundance of young, high-end pitching talent in the minors or currently with the big league team, as well as Matt Harvey set to return from Tommy John surgery, there's no guarantee that all those prized prospects will realize their potential. As is, the Mets are looking at a 2015 rotation of Colon, Dillon Gee, Jacob deGrom, Zack Wheeler and Jon Niese, with Harvey hopefully back early in the season and Noah Syndergaard waiting in the Triple-A wings. Having Colon around in case Harvey's return is delayed or Syndergaard continues to struggle in the minors could be a nice insurance policy for Mets general manager Sandy Alderson and company.
That said, if any team is willing to split with some good prospects for Colon, it's a move the Mets shouldn't hesitate to make. Colon was a smart gamble for Alderson to take in the offseason, and cashing him in for chips at the trade deadline would be the best use of the team's resources given the Mets' current place in the standings. But wherever Colon ends up, be it on his ninth team or still with New York, bet on him continuing his unlikely late-career renaissance. Enjoy it while you can.