Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 40 – Bartolo Colon
Bob Toth | On 22, Feb 2017
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Countdown to Opening Day – 40
There is something about Bartolo Colon that makes him beloved by fans across the nation and the world.
Sure, he has had a long and sometimes successful Major League career, keeping his name in the news during springs and summers since debuting with the Cleveland Indians in 1997. But now, many years removed from a slimmer, more dominating flame-throwing version of himself, Colon now looks like an everyman, resembling more of a middle-aged man who had let himself go and now is attempting to squeeze himself into a pair of baseball pants in some sort of midlife crisis.
Colon takes the brunt of the jokes for being out of shape and being a really, really lousy looker while standing in the batter’s box.
But the joke’s on you – the 43-year-old right-hander signed a $12.5 million deal in November to join the starting rotation of the Atlanta Braves, providing lots and lots of life experience and veteran leadership to a young team, now constructed by John Hart, a very familiar face for Colon from his time in Cleveland.
Colon signed with the Indians in 1993 for $3,000. He debuted in the minors in 1994 and quickly climbed through the farm system, reaching the Triple-A level in 1996.
He made his Major League debut in the fourth game of the 1997 season, taking the mound for the first time in Anaheim against the Angels. He worked five innings and left with a no-decision in a 4-4 tie game as the Indians would go on to lose as Paul Shuey blew a 12th inning save on a walk-off grand slam to Tim Salmon. The transition was not entirely smooth for Colon – he spent time back in the minors (posting a 7-1 record with a 2.22 ERA in ten starts at Triple-A Buffalo). He went 4-7 for the Tribe with a 5.65 ERA and did not factor in the club’s heartbreaking postseason run.
He became a regular in the rotation the following season, joining the likes of Charles Nagy, Dave Burba, and another highly-touted young arm, Jaret Wright, and would be the Opening Day starter for the club in 2000, 2001, and 2002. He went 14-9 with a 3.71 ERA in 31 starts with six complete games and was named to the American League All-Star team in his first full season in the Majors in 1998. He won 18 games in 1999, topping the 200-inning mark for the second straight season, and added 15 more wins in 2000. He set new career-highs in starts (34) and innings pitched (222 1/3) for the Tribe in 2001 as he went 14-12 with his second straight 200-strikeout season.
He took the mound for the Tribe in the playoffs in 1998, 1999, and 2001. He nearly gave the club a quality start in his first postseason start against Boston in Game 4 of the ALDS, coming up one out short. His next outing was a gem, as he threw a complete-game four-hitter in Game 3 of the ALCS against New York. The following year, he was great in the ALDS opener against Boston, allowing two runs over eight innings, but was lit up for seven runs in one-plus inning in the 23-7 Game 4 shellacking. He shined with eight shutout innings against Seattle in the ALDS opener in 2001, but allowed three runs on six hits with four walks in a quality six and two-thirds innings in a Game 4 loss in the ALDS that series.
Things changed drastically for Colon in the 2002 season, as with eyes more closely observing the men and women entering the country after the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001, a more stringent border policy resulted in Colon aging several years in one offseason. In the spring prior to the 2002 season, he went from a 26-year-old to a 28-year-old as it was found that he was among numerous Dominican ball players who used incorrect ages in coming over to the professional game. His brother Jose, who was in the Indians’ farm system at the time, jumped from 23 to 26 in the same spring.
It was hardly the last time Colon made news in 2002.
He raced out of the gates to a 10-4 mark with a 2.55 ERA and 1.16 WHIP through his first 16 starts with four complete games and two shutouts. Manager Charlie Manuel’s Indians began the season with an impressive 11-1 start, but crumbled with a 2-15 stretch that included two separate six-game losing skids as the club would lose sight of the .500 mark for the rest of the season. After a 13-15 May and a 10-13 start to June, the Indians declared the rebuild was on, trading the successful Colon on June 27 to the Montreal Expos, who were fighting for a spot atop the NL East with a 40-36 record, seven games in back of the Atlanta Braves while desperately needing an upgrade in their rotation.
The cost at the time was a lot of names unknown by most in the Cleveland market, as the team received veteran big leaguer Lee Stevens and minor league prospects Brandon Phillips, Cliff Lee, and Grady Sizemore. Pitcher Tim Drew also moved to Montreal with Colon.
And thus ended Colon’s time in Cleveland. He continued his strong season for the Expos, matching his 10-4 mark from his time with the Indians over his 17 starts for Montreal through the end of the year. They finished second to the Braves, who ran away with the division by 19 games. Meanwhile, the Cleveland roster would see much of the three prospects in Cleveland, with Phillips eventually relocating to Cincinnati (and now joins Colon in Atlanta) while Sizemore became a fan favorite and big contributor until his all-out style of play caught up to him in the form of numerous injuries. Lee had his struggles, but he had his successes and brought home the team’s third AL Cy Young Award in 2008 before he was dealt in another blockbuster trade by the club in 2009.
Colon’s stay in Montreal was short, as he was dealt in January after the season with a minor leaguer to the Chicago White Sox for pitchers Rocky Biddle and Orlando Hernandez, utility man Jeff Liefer, and cash considerations as the Tribe’s former ace was entering the final year of his contract. He went 15-13 for the Sox with a 3.87 ERA, a 1.20 WHIP, and a MLB-leading nine complete games on the season.
A free agent following the season, he cashed in on a four-year, $51 million contract with the Anaheim Angels, who were hot off of a World Series win in 2002 before falling back to third in the AL West with a 77-85, leading to the desire to spend big to add Colon.
Coming off of a career-high 242 innings pitched with Chicago, Colon’s numbers were not what they had been throughout his previous big league experience during his first year in California. His walks and hits allowed were up, as were his runs allowed as he ended the year with a 5.01 ERA in 34 starts. In the same number of appearances as the previous season, he pitched 33 2/3 fewer innings in his debut year for the Halos, but he did put together an 18-12 record as the club won the AL West, but was swept in the ALDS by the Boston Red Sox.
The next year was much better. Colon made 33 starts (222 2/3 innings), cut his walk rate by nearly half, reduced his hit rate as well, and won a league-best 21 games while making his second All-Star team (following his trip in 1998 for the Tribe). He would claim the AL Cy Young Award and the Angels pushed into the second round of the playoffs, losing to his former White Sox club in five games in the ALCS.
Things fell apart for Colon after that. He made just ten starts in 2006 and in the final year of his contract, he was 6-8 in 19 games (18 starts) with a 6.34 ERA and a 1.62 WHIP. He signed with Boston following the season, but he appeared in just seven games for the club at the Major League level and nine more at the Triple-A level before returning to the White Sox as a free agent. With just 12 starts (3-6 record, 4.19 ERA, 1.44 WHIP) for Chicago and three more in the minors, he was released in September and his career appeared to be in jeopardy.
He did not pitch in 2010, outside of a handful of appearances in the Dominican Winter League, which caught the eye of New York Yankees coach and former Indians catcher Tony Pena. Colon signed with the club and won a job in their bullpen out of camp, but returned to the rotation quickly and went 8-10 with a 4.00 ERA as a reinvented pitcher.
He moved back to the west coast and spent two seasons with the Oakland Athletics, winning 18 games at the age of 40 during his third All-Star season. It led to a free agent deal with the New York Mets, where he had spent each of the last three years and was again named an All-Star last season while putting together a 15-8 record with a 3.43 ERA and a 1.21 WHIP while leading the NL in fewest walks per nine innings for the second consecutive season.
He may have had one of the highlights of his career last season, when on May 7th, he took James Shields of the San Diego Padres deep for his first career home run in his 246th plate appearance. He ended the season with five hits (three for extra bases!), but owns a .091 lifetime batting average with 20 singles, four doubles, and the one home run. He has also walked just once while striking out 153 times in 302 career trips to the plate.
Once a pitcher who relied heavily on a hard fastball in the upper 90s, Colon still uses the pitch frequently, but averages speeds in the upper 80s now on the radar gun. He still complements his two- and four-seamers with a slider, a changeup, and his pinpoint accuracy, much different than the pitcher that he was with the Tribe 15 years ago.
If all goes as scheduled, Colon will begin his 20th Major League season working with his third different NL East club and looking to add on to a career that includes 233 wins, a lifetime 3.93 ERA and 1.30 WHIP, 36 complete games, 13 shutouts, and 500 starts. He is the game’s active leader in wins and losses, innings pitched, and starts, and should be the oldest player to suit up across the Majors during the 2017 season.
Other notable 40s in Indians history: Jim Hegan (1942), Pedro Ramos (1962), Ken Harrelson (1969-1971), Rick Wise (1978-1979), Ernie Camacho (1983-1984), Bud Black (1988-1990; 1995), Kelly Shoppach (2013), Jerry Sands (2015)
Main photo: 1999 Upper Deck SP Signature Edition baseball card