Mets Fans Expect a Fill-In, But Get Ace Bartolo Colon at MLB Winter Meetings

Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Mets surprised many by opening their wallets to sign Bartolo Colon to fill out a spot at the top of the rotation with Matt Harvey sidelined until 2015.  A two-year $20 million commitment to a 40-year-old hurler seems strange for a team that is really still in the process of developing young talent to compete two years from now.

Coming into the off-season, I thought it made a lot more sense for the team to acquire a younger pitcher such as Braves free agent Paul Maholm to round out a solid Mets rotation.  I have now changed my mind to believe that the Mets did the right thing by acquiring what very well could be the best hurler on the free agent market.

Before analyzing Colon’s recent performance, let’s focus on two alternatives.  First is Maholm, a 31-year-old southpaw who has had some very good moments in recent years.  Last season Maholm offered a 3.46 ERA through his first 13 starts despite being armed with a fastball that comes in at just 87 MPH.  In those 13 starts, Maholm induced 59% ground balls and limited southpaws to just a .169 average.  His value seemed to be soaring on the brink of free agency.

Maholm’s stock crashed down over the next 13 starts on the season.  His ERA spiked to 5.47 as left-handers hit .292 while right-handers teed off with a .329 average and .524 slugging percentage.  His change-up no longer fooled anyone as the opposition hit .345 against it, which is actually darn good when compared to his cutter which he used on 11% of his pitches and suffered a .440 average against and a pathetic .760 slugging percentage.

If looking for a comparable to Maholm, it could be Royals recent free agent acquisition Jason Vargas, another soft-tossing southpaw that relies on his change-up.  Vargas, who is also 31 years old, came to terms on a four-year $32 million deal with the Royals.  The deal is cheaper annually than the $20 million deal for Colon, but it is twice as long for a pitcher who similar to Maholm, lacks the consistency of Colon.  Additionally, what we learned from Colon last year is that both hurlers also lack his upside.

The 40-year-old Colon can still push the ball up to 90 MPH, not earth-shattering, but fast enough that with the right location is difficult to hit.  He also relies mostly on one pitch- the fastball.  Even while calling on the heater 85% of the time at a hittable velocity, Colon was able to limit opponents to a .270 average and .379 slugging percentage.  The key to Colon’s success has been precision and accuracy.

Colon is not a strikeout artist by any stretch, as he fanned just 15% of batters last year, a far cry from the former ace who fanned 200-plus in back-to-back seasons with the Indians at the turn of the century.  On the other hand, Colon had a near 4:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and walked just 3.8% of his batter last season while throwing 69% of his pitches for strikes.  He is not getting many swings and misses, but he is getting batters to chase pitches outside of the strike zone 27% of the time.

Those figures are elite, and the results have matched over the last two seasons with 28 wins compared to just 15 losses accompanied by a 2.99 ERA in 54 starts.  Initially my hope was for the Mets to secure a pitcher in his early 30s who could give the team a boost for the next four years.  Truth be told, that’s not what the franchise needs right now.

The Mets have been rebuilding for the last few years and now has some real arms going through the system.  In addition to Harvey, the team has second-year stud Zack Wheeler, top prospects Noah Syndergaard and Rafael Montero, and former top prospect Jenrry Mejia, who is still in his early 20s and coming off his first taste of success in the big leagues.  Then the Mets have Jon Niese and Dillon Gee, both dependable hurlers who can fit the roles of second and third starters.  The franchise may have the luxury of trading some of these arms in the coming years in order to patch up some of the weak spots in the lineup or bullpen.

There is no need for the Mets to commit to pitchers that will help three or four years from now.  The team needs a solid pitcher that can help turn the corner and allow the franchise to at least reach .500.  Combined with the additions of Curtis Granderson and Chris Young, the Mets have upgraded on a 74-win team from a year ago despite losing Harvey for the season.  Approaching 81 wins will build some momentum for a fan base that has endured a great deal of mocking and disappointment over the last few years.

The Mets should be a vastly improved team in 2014, even if the improvement at shortstop is merely Ruben Tejada lifting his average to .250 with a .300 on base percentage.  What’s more exciting is the team that awaits in 2015 when Harvey returns to his spot at the top of the Mets rotation.  There remains a great deal of uncertainty and the Braves and Nationals are by no means relinquishing their spots at the top of the NL East, but a sense of cautious optimism has made its way to Flushing and signing Bartolo Colon was a key part to getting there.

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