Bartolo Colon reportedly took a one-year offer Sunday from the Oakland Athletics. This is another win-win move in a down market for a team and a starting pitcher who need one another. The A’s need warm bodies, even ones as well-insulated as Colon’s, while Colon needs the gig.
Colon is coming off a year where he delivered his best strikeout rate since 2001, whiffing 19.5 percent of all batters faced for the Yankees as a back-end innings-muncher. Even allowing for the fact that strikeout rates are at an all-time high today, that’s pretty nifty for a comeback that initially inspired snickers or despair in the Big Apple. Colon silenced that derision despite his bulk, even while inviting some controversy over the stem cell treatments to his elbow that gave the veteran a chance to come back in the first place.
Knee problems down the stretch helped end his year on a sour note, but Yankee Stadium probably wasn’t the best fit for Colon in the first place. Lefties crushed him for an .880 OPS (against his .621 vs. right-handed batters), and he gave up 15 of his 21 home runs to lefties, including seven of the 11 he allowed at home. Yankee Stadium is the best ballpark for lefty power in the game today, and Colon is essentially a fastball pitcher who survives on changing speeds; his slider’s really just a show-me pitch, so left-handed hitters could afford to sit dead-red and hammer him.
But why should Colon go to the A’s? First, Colon really couldn’t do much better than the Coliseum as far as picking a place to pitch. While he’s been a fly ball-oriented pitcher his entire career, per Baseball Info Solutions, the A’s home park ranked 12th in the AL for three-year park factor for home runs. While everyone likes to harp on how great grounders are, in a park like the Coliseum fly balls aren’t evil -- they’re a high-percentage outcome for getting outs.
Second, the game has a time-honored tradition for retreads marking time with low-budget also-rans fielding a simulacrum of a competitive team while the prospects get readied. That’s what Livan Hernandez was good for with the Nationals the last couple of years, for example. There was no real expectation of greatness, just a hope for 30 workmanlike starts.
Some teams have made providing safe havens for low-cost veterans into a cottage industry. Perhaps the most memorable was the Montreal Expos in the 1980s. They basically spent a decade thriving as a haven for veteran retreads looking to pitch for pennies and rebuild their careers. Dennis Martinez started his second act for the Expos, going 100-72 in eight years with a 3.06 ERA after the Orioles gave up on him. Other veterans who got a new lease on life included Pascual Perez (28-21, 2.80 ERA in 65 starts), Oil Can Boyd (16-14, 3.15 ERA in 50 starts). The benefits of trawling in this end of the market was perhaps best reflected by Zane Smith: Picked up for nothing from the Braves in 1989, then dealt a year later in 1990 with a 2.79 ERA as an Expo. The payoff? Moises Alou, Willie Greene and lefty reliever Scott Ruskin.
For a veteran pitcher like Colon or Erik Bedard (who signed a one-year, $4.5 million deal with the Pirates a month ago), one of the nice benefits of signing with a team headed nowhere is that you don’t have to worry about picking the right team if you want to pitch on a contender. The contenders have better Plan A options, at least until injuries hit. Perhaps the best way to be a Plan B alternative is pitch somewhere in the majors that’s ready to deal you at the first sign of success. Pitch well, and your grateful dumpster-diving temporary employer will agreeably flip you to a winner worried about its rotation depth at the end of July or August.
Finally, Oakland flat-out needs warm bodies to help guarantee that they won’t be piling up mileage on the Sacramento shuttle from Triple-A. With cost control being job one for Billy Beane and David Forst, the last thing they want to do is start the service-time clocks of Jarrod Parker or Brad Peacock any earlier than necessary.
That won’t be easy to do, considering the fragility of almost all of the A’s current rotation choices. Dallas Braden and Brett Anderson are both going to be trying to come back from injury-marred 2011 seasons, while Guillermo Moscoso, Josh Outman and Brandon McCarthy all have unhappy track records where the DL is concerned. The bloated Colon may be a doubtful paragon of durability, but he’ll help fill up game time and roster space for the time being.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.