Cautious. Frugal. Patient. Prudent. There are plenty of adjectives one might use to describe the Yankees strategy this off-season but each inevitably leads to the same conclusion: Brian Cashman is taking the 75 million dollars the Angels gave to CJ Wilson, and the 100 plus million dollars the Rangers will probably plop down for Yu Darvish, and the 50 plus million dollars the Marlins spent on Mark Buerhle and he’s putting that money, and his faith and job security, and all his eggs in one very distinct basket. He’s betting on the 2012 edition of 2011 Yankees. He’s betting a slightly augmented version of the 97-game-winner is capable of capturing the AL East this season. He’s betting that, in the long run, passing on mediocre or otherwise overvalued talent in favor of payroll flexibility will pay off.
In short, he’s getting the gang back together. CC Sabathia signed a contract extension days before an opt-out clause in his contract could have made him a free agent. Freddy Garcia and Andruw Jones are back on one year deals. Jorge Posada has announced his retirement, but he of the negative WAR will be missed far more for his history with the franchise than for any value he contributed on the field. There is talk of Eric Chavez and Luis Ayala returning and Damaso Marte and Sergio Mitre pitched a combined five and a third innings last season. This roster is not losing much.
Of course one might argue that in the AL East, standing still is falling back. The Red Sox can’t possibly collapse like they did in 2011 and the Rays, with a full season of Matt Moore and an improving young roster, are poised to improve upon their Wild Card finish. Even with the possibility of two Wild Cards, the Angels, maybe even the Blue Jays, represent a serious threat to the Yankees playoff chances. But it’s a strategy. The upside on this roster, from Alex Rodriguez, to Phil Hughes, to AJ Burnett, probably outweighs the downside. A full year of Jesus Montero and Ivan Nova can’t hurt. If Cashman can managed to match last years roster – at least on paper – win by win, there’s certainly reason to be optimistic in the Bronx. A regime capable of planning for a flexible, prosperous future while maintaining an iron grip on the most competitive division in baseball is one worth praising.
Yet one very important piece of that 2011 squad does not necessarily appear destined for an encore. His name is Bartolo Colon, he was by fWAR the second most valuable pitcher on the Yankees last season, and over the past two months he has barely been mentioned in the national or local baseball press. While there are certainly valid reasons to doubt Colon’s ability to repeat his 2011 success the lack of credence given to said success represents a baffling continuation of a pattern of disregarding Colon that goes back to a masterful spring that landed him in the bullpen last April while lesser candidates were given initial shots at the rotation and proceeds with only minor interruption through his absence from last years ALDS roster. Sure, there have been whispers about Colon rejoining the team, but even now as we approach mid-January, just a month from pitchers and catchers, it seems somewhat unlikely he will sign and even more unlikely he will stick. Why has Colon been disregarded and how valid are the criticism?Here are, as I see, the main arguments against Colon.
He’s old, and he wasn’t that good anyway.
This, I think, is the first and most significant reason Colon’s name has been kept out of the national and local baseball spotlights. If a 30-year-old with Colon’s stuff and track-record pitched the way Bartolo did last season, we’d be talking about an Edwin Jackson. If a fellow 38-year-old went out there and pitched the way Colon did last season, but the results better matched the peripherals, we’d be talking about a Hiroki Kuroda. This combination of age and an ERA of four work to marginalize his value on the open market.
I think that’s just a little bit silly.
To start out with, the performance was quite admirable on face value. A guy who hadn’t pitched in a year and a half put together more than 160 innings and a 4.00 ERA. Yes, he suffered some fatigue at the end of the season, but his final numbers were impressive enough. His underlying numbers were even better. A 3.83 FIP and (importantly, given the park he pitched in) a 3.57 xFIP. A 2.9 fWAR. These are the numbers of a back-end second starter or a very good third starter. Colon, a former Cy Young award winner, is being treated like a journeyman spot starter.
The age is a legitimate concern but let’s put this in perspective. It was just a year ago that this very same front office was practically begging a 38-year-old coming off a seson in which he pitched just 129 innings with a 3.85 FIP and a 2.4 fWAR and a 3.89 xFIP to come back on a one year contract worth somewhere around 16-17 million dollars. Granted, Andy Pettitte had a more consistent recent track-record of health. His performance track-record, on the other hand, was spotty. He had a history of arm troubles. There were durability concerns stemming from his inability to make more than 21 starts the year prior and age is age.
Pettitte is Pettitte. His history with this franchise going back to the mid-90s, his playoff resume (taken with a grain of salt), and his general presence around the team inflated his value. But what about Kuroda? There is no such connection there and if you look at the peripherals – the 3.78 FIP, the 3.56 xFIP, the 2.4 fWAR – that Kuroda compiled in the NL West, you have to imagine that had he and Colon switched places Colon might very well have had the better season. The price-tag looks to be too high on Kuroda but for Colon? You could be acquiring a pitcher with similar strikeout and walk and ground ball and home runs numbers, who put up these numbers in a much tougher environment, and you could be acquiring that pitcher for possibly one fifth or even one tenth of the cost. Sounds good, doesn’t it?
But he got hurt, and he collapsed down the stretch. I’m just more comfortable with Freddy Garcia.
This is probably the argument you will hear most often among Yankees fans and I think it gets to the crux of the matter. After all, Colon’s season ending numbers do not come close to telling the entire story. His ERA of 3.20 in the first half bore no resemblance to his ERA of 4.96 in the second half. After missing a few starts with a hamstring injury in June he pitched so poorly down the stretch that he was left off the playoff roster. This alone might not make him an unattractive candidate but one has to wonder whether those starts early last season were simply an aberration. If Colon does in fact present a serious injury and performance risk, might it make more sense to bet on the potentially less skilled but more consistent Freddy Garcia? This does pre-suppose that the team cannot afford to bring both on board next season (or at least that they would not want to) and I’ll get to that in the minute but I think there are several more fundamental issues with this line of thought.
To start, Colon’s ballooning second-half ERA over-states the discrepancy in performance between pre-injury and post-injury Bartolo. In the first half of the season Colon pitched 90 innings and struck out 79 batters to go along with 22 walks and 11 home runs. In the second half Colon pitched 74 innings and struck out 56 batters to go along with 18 walks and 10 home runs (with a much higher HR/FB rate). Certainly the drop in strikeout rate hurt, but he was still striking out more than three times as many batters as he walking. Look at his month-by-month xFIP numbers to the right and you’ll see a drastically different picture of his season than has commonly been presented. In fact, in every single month, his xFIP either matched or bested his season ending 4.00 ERA (alright, he had a 4.01 xFIP in August, but we can let that hundredth of a run per nine innings slide). There is a trend there. There is evidence of fatigue. There is not, however, a precipitous decline into mediocrity, as his ERA trend would have you believe. xFIP shows that his struggles in September were largely fueled by poor luck on balls in play and flyballs. Cover up his ERA and his final few starts don’t look all that bad, especially his 19-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the final month of the season.
Now, I’m not going to sit here and pretend there was no decline. There was a decline in the second half. Clearly. Yet if Colon suffered some fatigue down the stretch, it’s perfectly understandable. The man pitched exactly zero professional innings in 2010. He came out of semi-retirement at 38-years-old and made 26 starts. You’d expect some degree of regression down the stretch. Even for an old guy, fatigue is not necessarily a career threatening condition and it’s quite possible his hamstring injury coinciding with the onset of arm fatigue and overwork that drove down his performance in the second half of the season was just that – coincidental. His velocity dip didn’t set on until well after he returned from the DL and his performance in the month of July was quite satisfactory. If this decline was truly the 1.75 run decline demonstrated in his ERA, that is on thing. If his xFIP figures are to be believed, however, the decline was far less severe and his performance down the stretch was still just as value as his season ending 160 innings and 4.00 ERA would lead you to believe.
Ultimately, we’re talking about some fatigue and some bad luck in August and September damaging what was otherwise a very good season, a season in which due to almost inevitable arm fatigue Colon tailed off a bit in the late goings. That’s not so bad. When you look at what he did early in the year, and you look at the stuff and control of the strike zone he brings to the table, maybe we can overlook a few bad starts late. Maybe we can give him the benefit of the doubt on the question of luck and statistical noise. Most don’t seem to be giving him this benefit of the doubt and I think part of the reason for this is Freddy Garcia. He ended the season with a better ERA, he made the playoff roster, and he generally been portrayed as the greater success. If Freddy Garcia had been the picture of consistency and one were to tell me they trusted Garcia’s health and durability far more, I might be able to go along with that. Yet Garcia was not this picture of consistency. He suffered a similarly precipitous decline in performance in the second half, his ERA rising from 3.13 to 4.45. He suffered a similarly precipitous drop in velocity in the final month of the season. In fact, in August and September, Garcia struck out 16 batters and walked 11. In the final month of the season he gave up 15 earned runs in 18.1 innings. Let’s not forget how poorly he pitched down the stretch and let us not be fooled by the ERA column – Colon pitched better most of last year.
On balance, Garcia was no more consistent than was Colon. They both missed some time due to injury, they both suffered significant performance hits in the second half of the season, and they both lost some velocity in the final months. The choice we were faced with then, a couple months ago, was the slightly younger Garcia with the shiny ERA or the slightly older Colon who’s stuff, and command of the strike zone, and underlying skill metrics were far better than were Garcia’s. I see why it might be more expedient to keep Garcia on board. After all, his surface statistics were better, he pitched in the playoffs, and he seems to have Joe Girardi’s confidence. It was the easy choice. Yet that the main argument made against Colon’s future in New York – his second half decline – also has some serious implications for Garcia is telling. If forced to keep only one, Colon may have been the better selection.
We aren’t faced with that question any more. Garcia is a Yankee now. That can’t be un-done and given the season he had in 2011 and the depth he provides it probably shouldn’t be un-done. Why, though, can’t they both enter 2012 as Yankees? How can the organization pass on this kind of value and depth at such low a cost?
Even if we wanted to keep Colon, there are just too many arms.
And so we reach our final anti-Colon argument. The final reason, as I see it, that Bartolo Colon should perhaps not be a Yankee in 2012. There is depth in the Bronx. The roster is already over-stuffed as it is. What this team needs is a dependable top of the rotation starter, not more depth. Is there room for Colon?
I think this might be the most legitimate of the all the above points. If there were room, if we needed him and Brian Cashman thought there was a place for him on this team, then I think making the case for bringing Colon on board would be fairly simple. The risk/reward is one sided. His age, his second half decline, the questions surrounding his future lower the price-tag. The underlying stats tell us he’s still got something. However as it stands he may end up somewhere on a spring training invite, fighting for a spot. Maybe here, maybe not. That is because of the exceptional depth Cashman has put together over the past few seasons.
There is a counterpoint to be made. Consistency and dependability or the lack thereof can, or can possibly, be made up for with depth and after CC Sabathia and maybe Ivan Nova, there is quite the lack of dependability. I’d trust Colon over AJ Burnett, probably over Freddy Garcia should he be healthy, and possibly over some of the young guys too. They are here, he is not, but bringing in a player of his caliber and allowing some of the lesser pieces – the David Phelps, Adam Warrens, and Hector Noesis of the world – to wait at AAA is not necessarily the worst of ideas. Bartolo Colon at his best is better than any of them and would not require any long term payroll commitments. Why not then, with a new CBA restricting our IFA and draft budget and some room in the Major League payroll for 2012, take a shot? Worst case, you’ve wasted a million or two million dollars. Best case you have your second or third starter.
Bartolo Colon was arguably the Yankees second best pitcher last season. He showed peripherals and stuff and command that could make him not only a decent rotational piece but a borderline second starter. He ostensibly could be had for quite a reasonable contract and while there is depth here, a roster so lacking in dependability could always use more. Colon’s second half decline was over-stated. His performance on the whole under-stated. His age is an issue, but on a one year deal who cares? The bottom line is that the potential upside outweighs the minimal risk.
I think Colon is still an option. He’s certainly on the back burner but should no one pick him up in the next month I could see him in camp with the Yankees. I hope he’d be given a shot at a rotation spot, though more likely he’d be competing with the Rule-5 guys for the long-man spot in the bullpen and with the minor league arms to be the next guy called upon should a starter be injured. I’d like to see him offered a Major League deal. I doubt it will happen. I will say this though: should they pass on Colon, especially if they look seriously at bringing in a similar pitcher like Hiroki Kuroda, a 38-year-old with similar underlying numbers, for five or ten times the cost on potentially a multi-year deal because they see that as a less-risky proposition, they’d be making a mistake.
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