PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.
Bartolo Colon gets plenty of attention for the comic relief he provides on the baseball field: the corkscrew swings, helmet flying, that launch a thousand memes, with everyone wondering what funny situation the 285-pound guy in the rumpled pinstriped pants will find himself in next.
For the Mets, however, bringing Colon back was no laughing matter, and it wasn’t about the entertainment value despite those “Big Sexy” clubhouse T-shirts from last season. The Mets believe Colon again can be a key component of a World Series contender, this time in defense of the NL crown. Most important, he brings flexibility as a swingman between the rotation and bullpen.
Colon had more lucrative offers than the one-year, $7.25-million deal he accepted from the Mets. He also had better guarantees of sticking in a rotation for the entire season. But he went back to the Mets, who intend to have him keep a starting spot warm for Zack Wheeler, who is expected to return around July 1.
Colon then would move to the bullpen in what now is an unspecified role. But with his 18 years of experience, and after what Colon did in his first two years with the Mets, he could be slotted in high-leverage situations, depending on the health of the relief corps.
“This guy could be a real late-inning guy if you needed it because he throws strikes at the bottom of the strike zone,” Terry Collins said. “So he brings a lot to the table, and we’re all very glad he’s back.”
Colon, obviously, can be a hard guy to overlook. But at Tradition Field, he’s not included among the row of lockers that house the five young guns. Wheeler owns the fifth spot despite still being in rehab mode. Colon has a more private cove nearby, tucked into the same corner he occupied a year ago.
That seems to suit Colon, whose closest neighbor is Jeurys Familia, and he tends to save the more slapstick moments for when the clubhouse doors are shut. He also keeps his media interactions structured, and always with an interpreter, although he did carry on a conversation in English with Matt Harvey after yesterday’s workout. Colon plans to have his first spring training news conference early this week.
His benefit to the Mets can’t be accurately measured in sound bites. And in the team’s estimation, Colon far outperformed the original two-year, $20-million deal that many figured he wouldn’t live up to when it was signed at the winter meetings in 2013. He went 29-26 with a 4.13 ERA, making 31 starts each season and averaging nearly 200 innings (397 total). Along the way, he also had a positive influence on the Mets’ young pitching staff, one the team’s decision-makers viewed as a key to its development.
“First and foremost, we brought him back because we thought he could contribute on the field,” Sandy Alderson said. “The downside for us is minimal because he can and is willing to perform different roles, which gives us some flexibility that you don’t typically have with someone of his ability and experience.
“But then secondly, the leadership that he provides in the clubhouse, the mentorship that he provides, is invaluable. I don’t even know how you estimate the impact and the value.”
A prime example of that is Familia, who credits Colon with helping him become one of the game’s best closers in his first season. While Colon’s economic delivery — honed over two decades — is impossible to replicate, his unflappable mindset is something Familia has tried to adopt, an attitude that’s crucial for someone in a closer role.
“He’s always the same,” said Familia, who was thrilled when he heard Colon had re-signed with the Mets in December. “Never too high and never too low. That’s probably the biggest thing I’ve taken from him. What he’s shown us, I’m going to appreciate all my life.”
A year ago, Colon was at the center of the Opening Day tempest once the Mets chose to use him over Matt Harvey to kick off the season against the Nationals in Washington. The goal was to protect Harvey from himself — the Mets feared he might OD on adrenaline if given the opener — so they deferred to the sage Colon, who pitched a superb six innings in the Mets’ 3-1 victory.
So he’s not Harvey. Or deGrom, Syndergaard or Matz. But the Mets hope Colon will continue to be that X factor, that 40-something goofball with an assassin’s focus on the mound.
“He’s ageless,” Alderson said. “You’re not necessarily relying on pure stuff with someone like Bartolo. You’re relying on his experience, his guile, his ability to make adjustments. I’m really happy to have him back.”
Those grinning, twisting hacks at the plate? Consider those a bonus.