Be honest — were you tired of the Bartolo Colon show after last season?
If you were, it’s totally understandable. At the age of 44, the rotund right-hander posted a 8.14 ERA and a 1.78 WHIP over 13 starts with the Braves, got DFA’d in late June, then signed with the Twins and posted an only slightly less embarrassing 5.18 ERA and 1.44 WHIP over 15 starts. Though Colon had made two All-Star teams after the age of 40 and succeeded for years without elite fastball velocity, it looked like the magic might have run out for “Big Sexy.”
He predictably struggled to find a job over the winter, and with talented starters like Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish, Lance Lynn, and Alex Cobb still on the market in early February, his prospects of sticking in the majors didn’t look great. And yet, with the Rangers looking to collect all the starting pitching depth they could muster, Colon signed a minor-league deal with Texas on February 4. He was by no means guaranteed a spot on the Rangers’ big-league club, but with Martin Perez skipping his first start and Colon enjoying a relatively successful spring training, he earned a starting spot.
The soon-to-be 45-year-old hasn’t looked back. To this point, he’s been arguably the best free-agent starting pitching addition in the major leagues, and certainly the best in the American League. Over nine outings (including two long-relief appearances), he’s posted a 2.82 ERA and a 0.84 WHIP that ranks third among qualifying MLB starters. While he’s struck out only 32 hitters in 51 innings — significantly less than his peers atop the MLB pitching leaderboards — he’s only walked four, giving him the lowest walk rate of any qualifier. Colon can earn quite a bit in innings-based incentives, but the Rangers are getting absolutely spectacular value for the $1.75 million base salary they’re paying him this season. If he keeps this up, maybe he’ll even bring back some long-term value at the trade deadline for a retooling Texas club.
It’s crazy to think how good Colon has been at his age. He didn’t make his major-league debut until he was nearly 24 years old, and yet he already had 11 big-league starts under his belt by the time 20-year-old Braves starter Mike Soroka was born on August 4, 1997. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the son of his two-time former teammate, is arguably the top prospect in baseball and is nearing his major-league debut, and Colon has pitched against father-son duos such as Cecil and Prince Fielder, Eric Young and Eric Young Jr., and Clay and Cody Bellinger. Colon pitched against nine current major-league managers while they were active players, as well as six more former big-league skippers. And somehow, even when he’s the oldest starting pitcher in the majors by seven years, he continues to get it done.
Over in the senior circuit, an equally surprising pitcher has been the best free-agent starting addition in the league through the season’s first eight weeks. Miles Mikolas turned heads at the Winter Meetings back in December when he earned a two-year, $15.5-million contract from the Cardinals. While that’s an extremely affordable contract for a good starting pitcher, Mikolas hadn’t by any means proven that he could be one at the major-league level; over 37 appearances (10 starts) for the Padres and Rangers between 2012-14, the 29-year-old had thrown for a disappointing 5.32 ERA and 1.42 WHIP. After heading to Japan, Mikolas posted a dominant 2.18 ERA and 0.99 WHIP over 62 starts from 2015-17, but success overseas doesn’t guarantee success in the majors, and after Mikolas struggled during the early part of spring training, there was definitely reason for skepticism.
Mikolas has done everything he can to destroy those doubts through the first two months of the 2018 campaign, joining players like Eric Thames, Colby Lewis, and Ryan Vogelsong in finding success after a stint in Asia. Through eight starts, he’s gone 5-0 with a 2.63 ERA and a 1.05 WHIP, combining velocity and efficiency as he’s averaged 94.3 MPH on his fastball while throwing 51.1 innings. Like Colon, he hasn’t struck many hitters out (37) but has displayed stellar command, posting a 0.88 walks-per-nine rate that ranks best in the NL and second only to Colon’s across the majors. He looks like an NL All-Star, and considering the cost of effective starting pitching these days, he’s already justified the relatively sensible gamble the Cardinals took on him.
Of course, while no credit should be taken away from Colon and Mikolas for their fantastic results thus far, they’re not exactly dealing with a ton of great competition in their bids to be the best free-agent starting pitching additions of the year. Though Phillies ace Jake Arrieta has allowed more runs and baserunners than Mikolas while throwing fewer innings, he’s been very good after signing midway through spring training, posting a 2.82 ERA and 1.14 WHIP over eight starts, and if you count Angels two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani as a true free-agent addition, he’s made a good case as well, throwing for a 3.35 ERA and 1.07 WHIP over seven starts. The other top starters from the 2017-18 free-agent class haven’t been nearly as effective, however.
Yu Darvish, who signed a six-year, $126-million deal with the Cubs, has really struggled thus far, posting a 4.95 ERA and 1.43 WHIP over eight starts while averaging just five innings per outing. Things appear to be trending in the right direction, as he’s been much better in two starts since going on the DL earlier this month to deal with a parainfluenza virus, but he’s still got a long way to go as he tries to justify the contract Chicago gave him in February, and his slow start has prevented the Cubs from separating themselves from the pack in the NL Central.
Two AL starters who didn’t sign until late in spring training, the Twins’ Lance Lynn and the Orioles’ Alex Cobb, have been absolutely horrendous through the first quarter of the season. Lynn, who signed a one-year, $12 million deal with the Twins in March (and also cost them a second-round pick because he received a qualifying offer), has posted a 7.47 ERA and 2.04 ERA over eight starts. Cobb was the last high-priced free-agent pitching domino to fall when he signed a four-year, $57 million deal with Baltimore on March 21, costing the Orioles their second-round pick in the process. After deciding against pitching in minor-league games to get up to speed because he didn’t want to throw minor-league baseballs, Cobb has struggled to a 6.56 ERA and 1.85 WHIP over seven major-league starts.
C.C. Sabathia has been fantastic after re-signing with the Yankees and Tyler Chatwood has been solid for the Cubs, but all the remaining starters who received contracts worth $10 million or more and have pitched this season — Mike Minor, Jason Vargas, Andrew Cashner, and Jaime Garcia — have struggled significantly. Hopefully the struggles of all those high-priced free agents won’t further punish next year’s free-agent starters — they’ve already been punished enough by the aging curve employed by virtually every front office today — but Colon and Mikolas are certainly proving right now that even the most unexpected free agents can have great success if placed in the right environment.