Few pitchers find themselves toeing a big league mound at age 40. Even fewer do so with the dominance that Bartolo Colon displayed last season.
The Oakland A’s portly right-hander made the All-Star team, won 18 games and nearly captured the American League ERA title. Not only did Colon stave off retirement, he actually made a contract push heading into his 17th major league season.
That’s where his potential return to the A’s gets murky. How much should Oakland be willing to shell out to re-sign Colon to anchor its starting rotation? How much money are other teams willing to shower him with?
Here’s a look at the pros and cons of the A’s bringing back one of the most intriguing free agents on the market:
Colon is still pitching at an extremely high level. Whatever velocity he has lost in the twilight of his career, he’s making up for with savvy and pinpoint control. He went 18-6 last season with a 2.65 ERA over 30 starts, relying mainly on two-seam and four-seam fastballs and the occasional slider to keep hitters off-balance.
Among major league starters, only Cliff Lee, David Price and Adam Wainwright averaged fewer walks per nine innings than Colon last season. That allows him to pitch deep into games and save his bullpen. Being an effective strike-thrower also keeps his defense on its toes. After he was suspended in 2012 for testing positive for elevated levels of testosterone, Colon re-signed with Oakland for 2013 and improved his numbers from the year before. He lowered his ERA (3.43 to 2.65) and his WHIP ratio (1.20 to 1.16). Oh, he also tossed three shutouts.
Colon can still get major league hitters out, but Father Time might prove a tougher opponent. He’ll turn 41 in May, and at this point in his career, it’s fair to wonder when he’ll hit the wall and suffer a steep drop-off. While last year’s outstanding season helped quiet concerns over how much PED’s have helped him in recent years, there’s no guarantee that Colon can repeat his 2013 form or even resemble it.
Let’s not forget that the wheels came off for Colon – albeit briefly – for a two-start stretch in August, when he allowed 10 earned runs over 6 2/3 innings. That led to a stint on the disabled list for what was listed as a groin injury, but it seemed Colon was perhaps fatigued and needed a break. Will that happen more often in 2014? Colon was listed at 267 pounds in last year’s media guide. Combine his age with his physical conditioning, and the injury risk is there.
[RELATED: Should A's go after Nelson Cruz?]
Sending Colon to the mound gave manager Bob Melvin a sense that all would be right on that day. That was for good reason. Colon and the A’s have proven to be a perfect match since he originally signed as a free agent before the 2012 season. Why wouldn’t the team want him back considering his performance? Looking beyond the numbers, Colon is a good clubhouse fit. Though his English is limited and he says little, he’s a prankster who finds a way to keep the mood light.
The A’s younger starters marvel at how loose he is on the days he pitches. While many big leaguers talk about how fortunate they are to get paid to play a kid’s game, Colon truly appears to be enjoying himself on the mound. There’s something to be gleaned from his approach, and the A’s have plenty of young pitchers who learn just from watching him.
Colon was paid $2 million in 2012 and $3 million in 2013. It appears he won’t come nearly as cheap this winter after an 18-win season. ESPN’s Buster Olney estimated Colon will land a one-year deal in the neighborhood of $10-12 million, despite what Olney described as hesitance among some teams to bite the bullet and sign him at his age. The A’s declined to offer him a $14.1 million qualifying offer, and while they’ve stressed their desire to retain him, surely Colon’s camp will be examining any offer the A’s make and comparing it to what they could get elsewhere. Likewise, Oakland’s front office can’t be blamed for weighing the risk involved in re-signing Colon and assuming he’ll maintain his current level of performance.
[RELATED: Should A's target Dan Haren?]
Sure, Colon will soon turn 41. But he’s a known quantity to the A’s. He is a no-fuss pitcher who relies mainly on fastballs that don’t tax his pitching arm, and he seems to be getting more crafty and wise with each season. From that standpoint, it’s easy to believe he could deliver another stellar season at the front end of the A’s rotation. Oakland could look at re-signing Colon as a smaller risk than throwing big money at a free agent starter from outside the organization.
You figure the A’s have enough free agent budget to splurge on just one impact starting pitcher. If they re-sign Colon, it robs them of the opportunity to sign a younger starter who could help the rotation for not only 2014 but beyond. With the current roster they have in place, the A’s are in win-now mode, and Colon could help their short-term pursuit of advancing deep in the postseason. But might there be other starters out there who could make their impact next season while adding future upside?
One way or another, the A’s should add a veteran starting pitcher. Perhaps it could come through a trade – you can’t ever discount that possibility with this team. But there are some realistic free agent targets as well (though one is off the market with the news that Tim Hudson will get a two-year $23 million deal from the Giants). Colon is one of the best options for Oakland, no doubt.
The A’s would like Colon back. Surely, the thought of returning has some appeal to him as well. But the more time that passes without news of an agreement with Colon, the more likely it seems that he’ll head elsewhere. By this point in A’s/Colon discussions, both sides must have a general idea of where the other one stands. If Colon believes he can find greener financial pastures elsewhere, the A’s figure to get cracking on finding his replacement.