The top end of the free agent market for starting pitching may be at a standstill until Masahiro Tanaka's posting status is resolved, but that didn't stop the Mets from making a move that could just have easily worked for a contender as a non-contender. On Wednesday, they signed Bartolo Colon to a two-year, $20 million deal, a move that should bolster an otherwise young rotation and build some credibility with their downtrodden fan base.
Colon will turn 41 in May, which with the retirements of Mariano Rivera, Darren Oliver and Andy Pettitte will make him the majors' oldest pitcher. Nonetheless, he has defied his age, injury history, and a 50-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs to turn in a strong two-year stint with the A's, one in which he helped them to back-to-back AL West titles. In 2013, he made the AL All-star squad for the third time in his 16-year career and turned in his best season since his 2005 AL Cy Young campaign, finishing second in the league with a 2.65 ERA over 190 1/3 innings. While he struck out a modest 5.5 per nine, his pinpoint control and ability to pound the strike zone relentlessly enabled him to post the league's second-lowest walk rate (1.4 per nine) and sixth-highest strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.0).
In all, Colon's performance was worth 5.0 WAR, the second-best showing of his career, even better than the 4.0 in his wins-driven Cy Young season. For the three-year span since he reemerged from a half-decade odyssey of shoulder woes — thanks in large part to a controversial stem cell procedure whose efficacy has been obscured by his suspension — he has posted a 3.32 ERA (119 ERA+) with a 3.7 strikeout-to-walk ratio while averaging 169 innings and 3.3 WAR per year.
Officially listed at 5-foot-11 and 265 pounds, Colon isn't exactly the picture of physical fitness. Unlike ace Matt Harvey, he's no threat to appear in the buff in ESPN Magazine's next Body Issue. Even so, he provides a clinic on how effective a pitcher can be on the strength of well-placed fastballs of different varieties. As the Astros' Jarred Cosart told The Sporting News' Jesse Spector, ""He's got a straight one, he's got one that sinks, one that cuts, and one that's basically invisible, like a BP fastball. Instead of preparing for fastball, curveball, slider, you're basically looking at four different fastballs, and he probably threw 75 percent fastballs. It goes to show what a guy with good command can do."
After winning 74 games in 2013, their 5th sub-.500 season in a row, the Mets don't expect to contend in 2014, and Harvey is expected to miss the entire season after undergoing to Tommy John surgery in October. Despite their grim financial state and ever-contracting payroll, they still need to put an appealing product on the field, and they were particularly in need of a pitcher who could provide innings in bulk, given that 24-year-old Zack Wheeler will likely face an innings cap, and that just one of their returning pitchers, Dillon Gee, topped 143 innings. Colon can't be counted for 200 innings, a level he hasn't reached since 2005, but 160 to 180 of better-than-average work would be a significant help, both in giving his team a chance to win every five days and in mentoring a staff that's short on experience.
As I noted earlier this week, it's worth noting that FanGraphs' Jeff Zimmerman identified Colon as the pitcher most likely to hit the disabled list next year, which makes sense due to his age and injury history. He's served time on the DL in each of the past three years, not to mention his 2006-10 wilderness years. That said, none of his three recent stints have all been arm-related; two have been for the 15-day minimum, and the third for just 20 days.
Colon will join Jon Niese, Gee, Wheeler and — barring further moves — Jenrry Mejia, a quartet that is all 28 or younger; Niese is the only one with more than two full seasons in a rotation, while Wheeler and Mejia have a total of 28 career major league starts under their belts. The Mets have more good young pitching on the way in Noah Syndergaard and Rafael Montero, both of whom started for the opposing squads in last summer's All-Star Futures Game at Citi Field. As those youngsters hopefully start carving out spots for themselves, and as Harvey returns in 2015, the possibility exists that Colon could be traded to a contender for a young prospect at the July 31 deadline. Citi Field isn't the Oakland Coliseum, but it's a favorable park for pitchers. Colon should benefit from a much-improved outfield featuring Curtis Granderson in left, Juan Lagares in center and Chris Young in right.
Two years and $20 million may sound like a steep investment for a 40-year-old pitcher, but it's hardly less risky than four years and $47 million for Ricky Nolasco, three years and $30 million for Scott Feldman, three years and $24 million for Phil Hughes, or the two years and $22 million with which the A's replaced Colon with Scott Kazmir. Kazmir threw 158 innings with a 4.04 ERA (93 ERA+) for the Indians in 2013, that after a two-year stretch in which he totaled just one major league start; he hasn't thrown enough innings to qualify for the ERA title (162) in any season since 2007, and hasn't had an ERA+ above 100 since 2008.
After cutting their Opening Day payroll from $142.8 million in 2011 to $94.5 and $93.7 million in the following two years, the Mets are reportedly headed towards the $85-87 million range in 2014. Even so, their load has been lightened by the hefty salaries of Johan Santana ($25 million) and Jason Bay ($18.1 million) coming off the books, and last week they signed Granderson to a four-year, $60 million deal. Granderson and Colon represent the team's first commitments above $12 million — that's total, not annual — since signing Bay to a disastrous five-year, $66 million deal in December 2009. Both players carry some age-related risk, but they also show Mets fans that the team is finally willing to spend money again, and they may still have more moves to come. Worth noting is that as of Monday, the team was believed to be out of the running for Colon because he was "too pricey," but in fact they were close enough to a deal that they didn't want to tip their hand. In all, this is a reasonable move by the Mets. Good pitching doesn't come cheap on the open market, even on short-term deals. General manager Sandy Alderson did well to find a fit with one of the best pitchers willing to take one.