Bartolo Colon, Economical Free Agent?


September 20, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Athletics starting pitcher

Bartolo Colon

(40) delivers a pitch against the Minnesota Twins during the first inning at Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Mariners are probably looking for a middle of the rotation starter. It has been reported by Buster Olney and it really just makes sense. While Mariners starters ranked 11th in ERA at 4.18 (and 10th in WAR at 12.9), that was mainly because they had two of the best starters in the league throwing over 40% of their starting innings.

Felix Hernandez finished the year with a 3.04 ERA, 2.61 FIP and 6.0 fWAR, posting what I think was the 2nd best season of his career. He struck out a career high 9.51 per nine innings, and career low 2.03 BB/9.

While he fell out of the race after an injury and a couple rough games, there was a case to be made for Felix in the Cy Young race. But unfortunately, an ERA over 3.00 and only 12 wins, beating a 20 game winner with a sub-three ERA in Max Scherzer was very unlikely, healthy or not.

Iwakuma did find himself in the aforementioned race, and ultimately took third place in the AL voting.

He ended the year with a 2.66 ERA, 3.44 FIP and 4.2 fWAR. However, he led the league in RA-9 WAR (which values run prevention over K/BB/HR, and is highly debated in the sabermetric community) at 6.8.

It is safe to say that the performance of those two tilted the scales a bit when looking at the overall numbers. This is one rare case where our recollection may serve us better than the numbers, as the memories of Aaron Harang, Joe Saunders and whoever else got thrown out there every 5th day still haunt us.

Although, we can simply subtract Felix and Iwakuma’s WARs from the 12.9 win total and tell us that Seattle’s myriad of 3-5 starters combined for 2.7 WAR on the season. Less than 1 WAR per rotation spot. Gross.

While the likes of Saunders and Harang are gone, and they may be replaced by talented young arms like Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Erasmo Ramirez, a consistent number three starter is still a need.

Even if two of the three youngins snag the four and five spots, their success and consistency could be a concern. Erasmo has an injury history, Paxton owns some control issues and struggled at times in the minors, and Walker is still only 21 and could use more seasoning.

There are a multitude of options on the free agent market this winter that are capable of bridging the gap between the 1-2 punch at the top and the kids at the back. Unfortunately, most of those options — namely Matt Garza, Ervin Santana and Ricky Nolasco — are likely to get over-payed due to the limited number of options, as well as their respective general overrated-ness.

While money shouldn’t be a problem for the M’s, you still want to be as efficient as possible. If those three were the only options and provided value relative to their price, then I would be in on any of them. But that isn’t the case, as Bartolo Colon is also available, and likely for much cheaper.

Colon comes with a stigma or two, as he is a 41 year old who has been busted for PEDs on more than one occasion (more on that later). But he has been very productive over the last few seasons nonetheless.

Since making his return in 2011, Colon has not posted an fWAR under 2.4, with a 3.9 mark last season for the A’s.

Here are some of Colon’s numbers since 2011, with comparable players listed for reference.

Matt Cain3.183.383.829.6
Justin Masterson3.893.613.739.4
Dan Haren3.973.73.629.2
Bartolo Colon3.303.623.928.9
R.A. Dickey3.383.853.818.7
Ricky Nolasco4.293.583.768.7
Rick Porcello4.593.853.728.6

Colon ranks 30th in the league in fWAR since 2011, just under Matt Cain, who many consider an ace, and just above Ricky Nolasco, who will probably end up making close to 1.5x what Colon will. You can also see that he owns the 2nd lowest ERA among the seven listed, so his success stems past FIP-based numbers.

I think many people would be willing to plug any of the pitchers above into the 3rd spot in the rotation, and would probably pay them more than what Colon is going to make (with the possible exception of Haren, though a couple years ago he may be in the same group).

As previously mentioned, Colon has his share of concerns. Anytime you count on a player on the wrong side of 40, there is a level of risk involved. And then there is the steroid concern, which might make some question if his recent success was real.

However, there are counterarguments to be made about all of the above.

Colon has been old for the last 3 years, but was very successful anyway. Will he begin faltering a little bit as the years go on? Of course, all players do. But he seems to be more durable than most, based on what we have seen as of late.

The PEDs are a valid concern, but likely not as extreme as many believe. The biggest effect it could have is probably related to injury prevention than actual success.

They might help keep on him the mound, but don’t guarantee he performs well when he is out there. On top of that, if Colon does get busted again, the M’s don’t have to pay him.

No players are sure things. Everyone has some kind of risk or problem involved with them, you just have to try to maximize value as best you can. You can pay a premium for someone with very few flaws, or you can play less for someone with more flaws. Occasionally though, as is the case here, you can find someone in the middle. There may be more risk involved, but the money you save will offset that.

And I don’t know about everyone else, but I would rather pay something like 2 years and $20 million for 2.5-3 WAR a year, with a little more risk involved (Colon), than 4 years and $56 for 2.5 WAR a year, and a lower level of risk (Garza, Nolasco).

If the contracts work out in that ballpark, Colon nets you 1 WAR for every $4 million, whereas Garza or Nolasco will cost about $5.5-6 million per WAR.

The answer is clear. The Mariners need a short term fix for the middle of the order, and could certainly benefit from saving some money to be used elsewhere in the process.

Bartolo Colon gives them the best chance to pull off that plan.