Bartolo Colon and Brandon Phillips come full circle

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Ahead of the trade deadline in 2002, the Montreal Expos and Cleveland Indians consummated a blockbuster trade that sent three great young Expos prospects and journeyman outfielder Lee Stevens to Cleveland in exchange for a workhorse starting pitcher in the prime of his career and reliever Tim Drew. Stevens and Drew did little of any note after the 2002 season; for Drew, the 16 innings he threw for Montreal after that trade were the highlight of his professional career, while for Stevens, this would be his last year as a major leaguer.

The other four players in the trade made a bit more of an impact on the game. Two of the Expos prospects were Cliff Lee and Grady Sizemore — guys who would eventually become mainstays of the mid-late 2000s Indians rosters. Sizemore remains one of the most recognizable Cleveland players from that era; so recognizable that the Indians rehired him this week as a front office adviser. Lee, on the other hand, arguably had his biggest impact on the team as a trade chip; after his breakout season as an ace in 2008, Cleveland dealt him to the Philadelphia Phillies for a trade package that included Carlos Carrasco, one of the anchors of their current rotation. Unlike Sizemore, Lee will be remembered more as a Phillie than an Indian, but he impacted the franchise in his own way.

Lee and Sizemore are also no longer playing, of course, having retired in 2014 and 2015, respectively. The remaining two players in that 2002 deal are, however. What’s more, they’re now playing for the same team: Brandon Phillips, the 35-year-old second baseman, and Bartolo Colon, the 43-year-old starting pitcher, are together on the same Atlanta Braves roster now, 15 years later.

They’ve seen each other occasionally though the years: 18 times at the plate, to be precise. Colon was the clear winner there. Pitchers usually are against specific batters, especially when the batter in question is a defense-first second baseman with a — charitably — league-average bat, and not, say, Barry Bonds. But Colon had exceptional success with Phillips over the course of both men’s careers: just three hits surrendered, all singles, to go with a walk and two strikeouts for a perfectly equilateral .176/.176/.176 line.

26 JUL 2016: New York Mets starting pitcher Bartolo Colon (40) pitches during the first inning of the second game of a doubleheader between the New York Mets and the St. Louis Cardinals played at Citi Field in Flushing, New York. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon)

(Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon)

With a line like that, Phillips is likely pleased to be playing behind Colon instead of against him now, but neither man is quite what he used to be. It’s something of a minor miracle that Colon, who was 29 years old at the time of the midseason blockbuster deal in 2002, is still even pitching. It’s true that part of that is due to a relative lack of wear and tear on his elbow from 2006 to 2010, when he didn’t pitch over 100 innings in any single year (and missed the 2010 season entirely), but that was because he spent most of his time those seasons with basically his entire pitching arm injured, from his rotator cuff to his elbow to tendons in his lower arm. He was one of the first players to try stem cell treatments to rejuvenate his career, and to the extent that one case can ever be used to make general statements about a treatment method, it seems to have worked to some degree.

The results are certainly hard to argue with: Colon had a career Renaissance upon his return, first with the New York Yankees and Oakland Athletics and then over the last three seasons with the New York Mets. It’s hard to say how long he can keep this up — he almost certainly will be on one-year deals for the rest of his time in the major leagues — but Colon remains one of the more fascinating cases of longevity in MLB history, up there with Jamie Moyer and Julio Franco.

Phillips’s career has had a much more standard trajectory: a second baseman whose value was built on defensive skills and hazy clubhouse attitude and veteran presence suddenly finding himself on the wrong side of age 35, and finding that the wear and tear of playing hard up the middle everyday for the previous decade has left its mark on his abilities. It will be interesting to see, moving forward, if the collision rules MLB has implemented around second base lead to slightly longer lifespans for pivots like Phillips, and to be fair to him, he has been remarkably consistent over the last few years, even if that consistency (~95 OPS+ with defense that has fallen from excellent to merely acceptable) isn’t something teams are champing at the bit to pay $13 to $14 million a year for. That’s why he’s on the Braves now, a rebuilding team, with the Reds — the team on which he was a franchise player for a long time — paying almost all of his salary.

They probably won’t spend even the full year together, these two, some of the last alumni of the Montreal Expos organization in the league; if either of them plays poorly, they’re liable to be shunted to the disabled list or DFA’d outright. And if either of them plays well, they’ll be dealt to contenders at the deadline in the same kind of deal that paired them together in baseball history all those years ago. Just one of those odd coincidences that plague the old men of baseball. And who knows, if they can manage to stick around for another couple years, maybe they’ll see each other again.

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