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Orbiting Cleveland: Should Colon be an option?

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OrbitingOn Monday, the Cleveland Indians’offseason took its latest turn when the team announced it had extended a $14 million qualifying offer to free agent right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez.

By all accounts, the qualifying offer was a good move. Jimenez now has until Nov. 11 to accept or reject the offer. If he accepts it, he will be bound to the Indians for one year at $14 million. If he declines and signs with another team, the Tribe receives an additional 2014 draft pick at the end of the first round.

That, my friends, is what you call covering your bases.

However, the sad reality is that Jimenez likely will decline the offer. Coming off a season in which he went 13-9 with a 3.30 ERA, Jimenez is going to get paid, and he and his agent know this. This will probably be his once chance to really take advantage of the free agent market, and no one can fault him there.

Unfortunately for the Indians, Jimenez’s impending departure ensures that the team still has a major hole to fill in its starting rotation. The other option for the Indians is to resign left-hander Scott Kazmir, but that could be more difficult than it seems.

Like Jimenez, Kazmir had a solid 2013 campaign as the lefty went 10-9 with a 4.04 ERA in 29 starts. There are definitely durability concerns with Kazmir, but there are also many reasons to be excited about his potential. For the first time in years, it appeared as if Kazmir’s velocity completely returned, and he is also a left-hander; it’s not easy to find left-handed starters who can throw in the mid-90s.

Knowing that, there is a chance that the Indians will also miss out on the prospect of re-signing Kazmir, and that would put the team in dire straits. Jimenez and Kazmir were both key pieces of the Tribe’s 2013 playoff run, and losing one of the players would be costly, but how can the team survive if they lose both players?

Let’s consider a worst-case scenario. Let’s go ahead and conclude that the Indians will lose both Jimenez and Kazmir this offseason. What’s the team to do?

If that does prove to be the case, the Indians will obviously be in the market for another starting pitcher. There are some intriguing options out there, but it seems hard to believe that the Indians could sign someone with more potential upside than those two.

Still, the team will have to find someone, so who should their primary target then be?

Feeling nostalgic?

You should be.

There are a number of free agent pitchers out there on the market, but outside of Jimenez and Kazmir, there may be no better fit than right-hander Bartolo Colon.

Remember Colon? All 265 pounds of him?

He was that pitcher and former Indians ace who proved extremely valuable as he went 75-45 across 5 ½ seasons from 1997 to 2002.

Of course, the most valuable thing Colon may have ever done for Cleveland was leave. In the summer of 2002, the Indians dealt Colon along with Tim Drew to the Montreal Expos in exchange for prospects Lee StevensBrandon PhillipsGrady Sizemore and Cliff Lee. To this day, that trade remains the gold standard when it comes to judging trade-for-prospects deals.

Yet, it has been more than a decade since Colon last pitched in a Cleveland Indians uniform, and it’s safe to say that he is no longer the pitcher he used to be. He no longer is able to throw 100 miles per hour, but he has still proven himself to be an effective starter.

Colon is an interesting case as he recently revived his career in the past few years after he underwent a controversial stem cell surgery, which saw fat and bone marrow stem cells get extracted from Colon and then injected into his shoulder and elbow in an effort to treat ligament damage in the elbow and a torn rotator cuff.

So far, so good.

Since having the surgery, Colon has gone 36-25 with a 3.32 ERA in 83 games and three combined seasons with the New York Yankees and Oakland Athletics. Here’s the clincher though. This success has come in Colon’s age-38, 39 and 40 seasons.

Doesn’t usually work like that, eh?

Not everything has been perfect for the big righty though. From August 2012 and through the first five games of the 2013 season, Colon served a 50-game suspension after failing a testosterone test. He was also linked to the Biogenesis scandal this past season, but he was not punished as he was already suspended during the previous season.

By all accounts, it appears as if Colon is now finally clean, which could make him an ideal candidate for the Tribe.

Perhaps it would be a tad outrageous for the Indians to expect Colon to be able to sustain his success, especially as a 41-year-old in the Major Leagues. However, isn’t that what everyone has been saying for the past three years?

This past season, Colon went 18-6 with a 2.65 ERA in 30 games started. Both marks were good for second in the entire American League.

There are still certainly concerns with Colon, but take a look at the graph below as it helps to show just how consistent the big right-hander has been during the past three seasons.

(Courtesy of FanGraphs)

Last season alone, there was a stretch of 10 games where Colon never posted an ERA above his season average of 2.65. Any way you slice it, that is pure dominance on the mound.

Colon was almost equally impressive in 2012, his first campaign with the Athletics. In fact, over his last eight starts, just once did his ERA eclipse the 4.00 mark.

Of course, you might be thinking that Colon is doing this with smoke and mirrors. We know that he does not throw nearly as hard as he once does, so luck has to be on his side, right?

Not necessarily.

Here are the FIPs and xFIPs that Colon has posted in each of the past three seasons:

  • 2011: 3.83 FIP, 3.57 xFIP
  • 2012: 3.82 FIP, 4.17 xFIP
  • 2013: 3.23 FIP, 3.95 xFIP

The numbers above do indicate that Colon probably is not a 2.65-ERA pitcher like he was during this past season, but they also go to show just how effective he still is. Even with numbers like this, Colon could slot in as a solid middle-of-the-rotation-arm.

The one other concern is that Colon no longer strikes anyone out. There is certainly a level of truth to that as he struck out just 5.53 batters per nine innings this season, which is far cry from the 10.1 batters he struck out in 2000 during his apex with the Indians.

However, Colon seems to made up for his lack of strikeouts in other ways. He is the definition of a control artist as he has thrown a first-pitch strike to hitters an average of 65.8 percent of the time over the course of the past three seasons. Also, the graph below helps to further indicate his mastery in this area:

(Courtesy of FanGraphs)

Just look at his past three seasons. His walk numbers per nine innings do not come even close to the league average.

With his outstanding control, Colon is able to make up for his lack of punchouts. No, he’s not a guy who is going to overpower any lineup. However, he is a guy that is almost guaranteed to keep his team in a contest. In other words, he projects as an ideal middle-of-the-rotation candidate.

There are other benefits to signing Colon as well.

Because the Athletics did not tender him a qualifying offer, the Indians would not have to surrender a draft pick to sign Colon.

Additionally, Colon is kind of the perfect player to sign to a one-year deal. MLB Trade Rumors estimates that Colon could receive a one-year, $10 million deal this season, and if that’s the case, then the Indians have to be in on him.

Remember, the Indians paid $7 million last year on a one-year deal for the services of Brett Myers, and while it ended up being a poor deal, it never handicapped the team because it was for just one year — that’s the beauty of one-year contracts. If the Indians were willing to spend $7 million on Myers, one has to expect they would pony up another $3 million for Colon, right?

Also, the one-year deal seems appealing simply because a signing of Colon would really be nothing more than a stop-gap option, and that’s what the team needs right now. In a perfect world, one of Carlos CarrascoTrevor Bauer,Josh Tomlin or Cody Anderson emerges as a rotation staple at some point this season. If that’s the case, the Indians could then have their rotation set for years, provided they’re able to re-sign Justin Masterson.

Again, the prospect of signing Colon should probably only be explored if the Indians do come to a total impasse with both Kazmir and Jimenez. If that unfortunately is the case though, then it’s hard to really pinpoint a better free agent starting pitcher match than Colon.

In the past year, so much talk has been placed on the Indians forging a new identity and moving on from the legacy that was created in the 1990s and early 2000s. While that’s certainly true, a little help from an old friend like Colon wouldn’t seem to hurt.

Steve can be reached via email at orbaneks@gmail.com.

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