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Is Bartolo Colon still a viable pitcher?

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Sep 26, 2017; Cleveland, OH, USA; Minnesota Twins starting pitcher Bartolo Colon (40) stands on the mound in the first inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

After waiting to see if the New York Mets – his preferred team – were willing to sign him to a minor league contract (they weren’t), Bartolo Colon signed that contract with the Texas Rangers. There, he will be reunited with Ranger assistant pitching coach Dan Warthen, who was the Mets’ pitching coach during his three years in Flushing. Turning 45 in May, Colon is one year out from getting $12.5 million from the Atlanta Braves to mentor the young Braves’ staff. He was so terrible that he was released on July 4. Three days later, the Minnesota Twins signed him and he was functional if not overly effective for the remainder of the season. Now relegated to a minor league deal, does he have anything left?

The best way to answer that question is to ask a separate series of subset questions based on the key determining factors.

  • Is his fitness declining?

At first glance, this might seem to be a joke, but it’s not. In baseball, fitness is a loosely defined term and there’s no need for Colon to look like Giancarlo Stanton to be effective. He’s been in basically the same shape – oval – for at least a decade. Never did it affect his ability not just to pitch, but to be a surprisingly agile defender and a competent enough hitter.

His physicality must be placed in that context; based on that, there was little difference in 2017 relative to the previous decade. If he showed up 30 pounds lighter, it would likely do more harm than good. He’ll be in the same “Bartolo” baseball shape he’s been in for the latter half of his career.

  • Was there a marked difference in his stuff in 2017 vs. the prior few years?

Colon’s velocity is not a factor in whether he gets hitters out or not, but if there is a disparity, it’s a negative sign. It’s easy now to forget that when he first reached the majors with the Cleveland Indians, Colon had tree trunk thighs he used to rip fastballs that reached triple digits. From that, he evolved into a metronomic example of precision and location.

With the Mets in 2016, he won 15 games, made the All-Star team, and would have started the first game of the NLDS had the Mets gotten past the San Francisco Giants in the wild card game. His velocity was consistent from 2016 to 2017, but his results were not. For years, Colon has lived on fastball variations, the occasional slider and changeup, and a dart player’s location. When he needed to reach back for more on his fastball, he could do it. He saved his bullets and lived on guile and putting the ball where he wanted to when he wanted to.

Is that different? Unlikely.

His control with the Braves was seemingly worse as he walked 2.9 per nine innings. How much of that was due to the Braves’ new SunTrust Park being a pitcher’s nightmare bandbox with innocuous fly balls sailing over the fence? With the Twins, it reverted close to what it was with the Mets at 1.7 walks per nine innings. Was that connected to the pitcher-friendly confines at Target Field?

His stuff is not a factor. It was basically the same, so it’s difficult to envision that it declined significantly over a few months from then to now.

  • Are the Rangers a good spot for him?

If he’s afraid to throw the ball anywhere close to where the hitters can get at it as he appeared to be in Atlanta, then no. Globe Life Park in Arlington is one of the most homer-friendly parks in baseball. Colon gets his share of ground balls and the Rangers’ infield defense is one of baseball’s best. If he can keep the ball on the ground, regardless of how hard it’s hit, he can be successful if he makes the team. More problematic for him in that vein is the number of players who are tacitly trying to hit the ball in the air. Moreover, the AL West is overloaded with teams that rely on the home run and have players who hit a lot of them.

The Rangers have four spots in their starting rotation filled as they enter spring training with Cole Hamels, Matt Moore, Doug Fister and Martin Perez. They signed Mike Minor, who returned from two seasons lost to shoulder woes to become a very good reliever for the Kansas City Royals. Texas will give Minor the chance to try his former role from his days with the Braves as a starter. Also on minor league contracts are Colon’s former Met teammates Jon Niese and Erik Goeddel. The latter, a career reliever, will try starting.

The competition is not insurmountable. Colon, with his gentle motion and willingness to be a swingman and middle reliever, can certainly beat them out. That doesn’t say much for the Rangers’ starting pitching, but that’s a different story.

If he was trying to suddenly adapt from the pitcher he was in the first phase of his career with the Indians and do something radically different, it’s unlikely he could do it. But he’s not. He’s been pitching the same way for years and there were no injuries nor drastic alterations that led to his poor 2017 season. It was circumstantial. By that metric, he can still be of use.

Paul Lebowitz is the author of the novel Breaking Balls and his annual baseball guide. His work has appeared on AllVoices, FanIQ, and his personal site PaulLebowitz.com. He has been linked by Slate, ESPN, Keith Olbermann, Yahoo, and Baseball Think Factory. He lives in New York City.

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