When the Yankees signed Bartolo Colon to a minor league deal this offseason after not pitching in the majors, nobody really paid much attention (except for those who used it as an opportunity to ridicule the Yankees’ apparent lack of pitching depth). Colon after all had not pitched in the majors since 2009, and his hefty physique did not exactly inspire confidence in his conditioning, and ability to hold up over a long season. The signing was largely viewed as a “see what sticks” move, a low risk acquisition that could add to the Yankees’ pitching depth if everything works out. Yes he had the infamous his stem cell injection (using fat from Colon’s ponderous posterior), but who really thought that it would help him become a big contributor to the Yankees in 2011 anywhere outside of the buffet line?
As it turns out, the move did work out very well for the Yankees. For a measly contract of $900,000, the Yankees got 164 1/3 innings of 4.00 ERA (3.57 xFIP ball), worth a total of 2.9 fWAR over the entire season. Despite a short DL stint in June and struggling down the stretch, Colon was more than worth the money he was paid. And he did this by relying heavily on his fastball, which increased by 2 miles per hour on average compared to his last big league stint in 2009.
Colon’s subsequent decline at the end of the season (4.85 ERA in August and 5.96 in September) have caused many people to write off Colon as done, and dismiss his season as a fluke that he is unlikely to repeat. While there is a pretty good consensus that bringing back Freddy Garcia as a 5th starter would be a nice option, I really think the Yankees should think long and hard about bringing Colon back, of course provided that the financial cost is not excessive.
Colon’s conditioning and late-season swoon are certainly causes for concern, but Colon’s performance over the majority of the season demonstrate the value that he could still have in 2012. When Colon was on, he flashed good velocity with the 4-seamer and nasty movement on a 2-seamer, which he used to freeze hitters for called strike 3. His effectiveness and stuff looked somewhat diminished after coming back from the injury, but I really saw the hamstring injury as more of a fluke rather than a harbinger for a steep decline.
I think the time off and injury contributed significantly to Colon’s late-season struggles, and if he comes back healthy and ready in 2012, I don’t see why he couldn’t be the highly-effective pitcher he was for the first few months of the season. Another possibility is that pitching in winter ball (which Colon did to get noticed by major league scouts) may be at fault for Colon’s struggles at the end of the year, so skipping winter ball in 2012 could help Colon hold up better over a full season.
I am not necessarily saying that I prefer Colon to Garcia, but rather, that it is far from a slam dunk. I would happily have both back if they are willing to compete for a spot in Spring Training again, and possibly work out of the bullpen as a long man/6th starter if necessary. I am instead arguing that it is premature to write Colon off as done when he was such an effective pitcher for much of the 2011 season, and that he should be viewed as a legitimate rotation contender for 2012.
Of course, signing Colon does not mean that you can pencil him in to the rotation for a full, healthy season, so maintaining depth in 2012 will continue to be vitally important (such as Garcia if he returns and Hector Noesi). Provided he is willing to take a reasonable contract (he’s earned a major league deal), stay in some semblance of decent shape, and get another stem cell injection (if necessary), I could see Big Bartolo once again being a significant contributor in pinstripes. I think he’s as good a bet as any free agent option excluding CJ Wilson, Yu Darvish, and possibly Mark Buehrle and Edwin Jackson, and would come at a fraction of the cost.