The road traveled last season by Cleveland Indians right-handed reliever Joseph Colon to the Major Leagues was not the most conventional path to choose.
He originally joined the organization in 2009 when the club selected him in the 12th round of the draft out of Caguas, Puerto Rico. He spent much of his time in the minor leagues working as a starting pitcher, once throwing a nine inning three-hitter while a member of the Double-A Akron RubberDucks on May 26, 2014. In 2015, the team elected to look at him in a different role and moved him into the bullpen with a focus on being more aggressive and having more trust in his stuff. He worked in 21 games for Akron and another 12 with Triple-A Columbus while posting a combined 3-0 record with a 3.14 ERA and 1.23 WHIP for the season.
Following the season, he became a minor league free agent for the first time in his career, but he was re-signed in the offseason by the Indians with a non-roster invite to spring training. But before teams could report to spring camp, Colon and Chicago Cubs minor leaguer P.J. Francescon were suspended 50 games for testing positive a second time for a drug of abuse, becoming the first two players to be banned this year by Major League Baseball.
After serving his suspension, he joined the Columbus Clippers bullpen on May 31 and started out in strong fashion. In his first 13 appearances of the season, he allowed just one run in a span of 15 1/3 innings while striking out 14 and walking eight. On July 2, he was added to the Indians’ 40-man roster due to an opt-out provision in his contract and, on July 7, he was recalled to the Majors.
Colon appeared in three games in his first trip to the big league roster. He allowed a run on two doubles and struck out a batter on July 8 at home against the New York Yankees. He worked again on July 10, throwing two and one-third innings of scoreless relief while giving up a single and striking out three. But days after he took the loss after giving up a double and two walks in a defeat in Minnesota, he landed on the 15-day disabled list with a sore right shoulder.
He returned to Columbus for rehab work on August 6 and was activated from the Major League disabled list and optioned to the Clippers on August 15. He remained in the minors working in the bullpen for Columbus, working six and two-thirds innings over seven games, before he was recalled to the parent roster on September 1 when rosters expanded.
He earned his first MLB win in his second outing back, becoming the pitcher of record after working in the fifth and sixth innings against the Twins on September 9. He was dealt his second loss the next night and earned a loss in his final outing of the season on September 28 in Detroit against the Tigers.
For the year, he was 0-1 with a 0.82 ERA and 0.91 WHIP in 20 games for the Clippers and 1-3 with a 7.20 ERA and 1.90 WHIP for the Indians. He saw no work for the club during the postseason.
With the exception of some elevated walk numbers in June, opposing hitters gradually increased their production against Colon as the season went on. He allowed a .103 batting average against in his first full month back on the mound, but that number climbed to .174 in July, .182 in August, and .296 in September. The seven runs he gave up in the final full month of the schedule were one more run than he had allowed for the entire season. He limited left-handed hitters to a .160 batting average and a .267 on-base percentage with a 20% strikeout rate and a 13.3% walk rate, but right-handers ignored the traditional splits and hit .190 against him with a .320 OBP, a 25.3% strikeout rate, and a 14.7% walk rate. Younger hitters batted just .114 against him, while older batters hit .217.
Colon would be expected to be a candidate in the spring for a chance at a spot in the Indians bullpen for 2017, with several positions presumably open on Terry Francona’s relief staff. After Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, Bryan Shaw, Dan Otero, and Zach McAllister, there could be two to three spots open, with returning candidates like Austin Adams, Cody Anderson, Shawn Armstrong, Mike Clevinger, Kyle Crockett, and Perci Garner, and new faces like Tim Cooney, Edwin Escobar, and Hoby Milner joining the mix so far this offseason.
If Colon cannot lock down a role in relief with the Indians by the end of spring, he could easily bide his time in the minors with the Clippers while waiting for Francona’s steadily rotating relief corps to call upon the right-hander for his turn as the season progresses.
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