This offseason's market is starting to take shape. Josh Johnson settled for a single year with San Diego. Jason Vargas took a lower yearly salary to get four years, $32 million from Kansas City. Ervin Santana wants over $100 million, and Ricky Nolasco wants $80 million. Bronson Arroyo might get three years at age 36. Whether or not these pitchers get the deals they desire remains to be seen, but there's a chance to exploit an emerging market inefficiency and give Bartolo Colon two years.
The Mariners are rumored to want a #2 starter, but they also want two front-line power bats, a closer, and a mini-horse. These things are going to cost a lot of money if they take the traditional route everyone is assuming they will. Santana, Nolasco, and Matt Garza are not going to be cheap - they are going to require major commitments and have the potential to backfire tremendously. Plus, those pitchers profile more as #3 pitchers than #2, which is what the Mariners really want. There's been a lot of talk about why the Mariners would want a #2 pitcher when they already have Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, and it's silly - the # designation for rotation pitchers is a term of caliber, not their actual role. Do you think the Tigers would be so successful if they had a true #1-#5 in terms of talent? Was Anibal Sanchez a #3? Was Max Scherzer a #2? No.
So who's out there that is capable of performing like a #2 pitcher, won't cost a ton of money, and carries far less risk than the marquee pitchers available in their prime? Bartolo Colon. The comments of the contract crowdsourcing for him on Fangraphs are revealing - nobody seems to want to give him a multi-year deal given his age and PED suspension, and his final estimate was 1 year, $7.4 million. I'm giving that to Colon in a heartbeat. I'm even giving Bartolo Colon two years if he demands it. Here's why.
The nature of free agency is that you pay for players that are already at the end of their prime, about to enter their decline years. Teams are forced to offer massive contracts to players whose aging curve is unknown. Nobody really knows how Matt Garza is going to age after 30, but teams will pay a hefty price to find out. Why are teams doing this? Because that's the name of the game, and everyone wants the players who could be good for a long time, even though they probably won't be. Why participate in that game when you don't have to? The class of free agent pitchers isn't worth the risk at the price they'll command.
The Giants just signed Tim Hudson for two years at $23 million. Hudson turns 39 next season, but he's already proven that he can remain an effective pitcher well past his prime and into his twilight years. In many ways, he's a more known, safe commodity than Ricky Nolasco, but he's commanding a fraction of the salary at a much lesser commitment. His deal was met with a combination of praise and boredom. It was a very Brian Sabean thing to do. Brian Sabean has two World Series rings.
Bartolo Colon is old. Super old. He's going to be 41 next year, but he's also coming off his best season since 2005. His FIP of 3.23 was the best of his career. He posted an ERA of 2.65, a mark he never reached when he was one of the league's most marquee pitchers. There's no fluky low BABIP either, and while Steamer projects a major regression in Colon's LOB% (to 69.9% from 80%), Colon is already in the middle of defying all typical aging paths. He's done this by demonstrating tremendous command of his four pitches. Colon, quite simply, knows how to pitch at this age.
There's plenty of things to be concerned about. His weight, PED suspensions, and age are all red flags that people point to when disparaging him. He was suspended 50 games in 2012, and escaped another suspension in 2013, as Major League Baseball chose not to double up his punishment for the same crime. If he gets popped again, he'll have to sit out 100 games. It's a risk, but not a financial one for the signing team, as Colon will forfeit his salary if that happens. The PED suspension risk gets overplayed for this reason - it's really not much different than injury risk, or the chance he falls off the table at 40. Plus, Colon has already demonstrated he can pitch efficiently well after the suspension.
There's also not a lot of concern about Colon's velocity. Colon has averaged 92.9 mph on his four-seamer over his career, and last year he averaged 92.6 at age 40. His sinker still sits at 89-90, and he commands his change and slider with ease. Colon knows how to pitch, and he still has plenty of heat left to keep batters on their toes. Only Cliff Lee, David Price, and Adam Wainwright walked less batters (BB/9) in 2013. Colon throws 86% fastballs (4-seam and sinker), and puts the ball wherever he wants. He knows exactly what he's doing in the twilight of his career, and it's working.
There's risk in getting a guy like Colon. But is it really any riskier than going out and signing a big name free agent like Ervin Santana or Matt Garza? It's not even close. There's no compensation attached, and the concerns about Colon (body, age, PEDs) are off-set by the affordability of his contract. Far too often people look for reasons to trash a free agent signing, all without really considering the cost. I find it similar to the Marlon Byrd deal - there's a player with tons of red flags - declining contract rate, miserable 2012, possibly fluky 2013 - but that was reflected an affordable contract. If his deal goes south, the consequence isn't that big. But if an Ervin Santana deal goes south? That's the kind of problem that cripples a franchise.
Free agent contracts are close to going through the roof with the influx of new cash swirling around the league. Smart teams will find a way to exploit the market and find players who are undervalued. Bartolo Colon is a prime example of that, and he still allows this team to go out and make a big risky splash on a bat like Jacoby Ellsbury, if they desire to do so.
Nobody thought Colon was going to get two years a matter of weeks ago, but after really reviewing the free agent landscape as well as possible stated desires from the Mariners, I would have no problem doing it now. If one year + option can't get it done, lure him away from Oakland and all the other competitors making him single year offers by placing a two year, $18 million on the table. I would feel comfortable with anything up to 2/22. All of his red flags aren't any more glaring than paying big bucks for a player about to enter an unknown decline. We already know how Colon has aged and adjusted, and it's just fine. He's old, but he was old the past two years too. Take him off the market before anyone else figures out what a bargain he's going to be.