The Atlanta Braves had an inning of embarrassing proportions on Tuesday night. It included three errors and a handful of other mistakes that paved the way for the Los Angeles Angels to score nine runs off veteran right-hander Bartolo Colon en route to a 9-3 victory.
On this particular night, the finger can’t simply be pointed at Colon’s struggles. While he has been the culprit on several occasions this season, the defense most definitely let him down against the Angels. That aside, for whatever reason, Colon simply has not pitched up to expectation so far this season. His 6.99 ERA is the worst among all qualified starters baseball. He leads the majors in runs allowed (52), earned runs (43) and opponents’ batting average (.325) all while averaging his most walks per 9 innings (2.4) and home runs per 9 innings (2.4) since 2009.
There is some obvious frustration built into Colon’s woes. At 44 years old, it was reasonable to expect some degree of regression every season for a while now. Somehow, he’d managed to reinvent himself as an ageless wonder of sorts, one that survived primarily on his fastball location. While Colon has always allowed his fair share of hits, his control and command have both been lacking this season. That has led to an average of just five innings per start (4.1 IP on average in his six May assignments) for a pitcher who was expected to provide durability, consistency and quality starts to the Atlanta rotation.
While Tuesday’s outing was hard to watch for a number of reasons, it’s unfair to pin it all on Colon when playing the blame game. After all, he could have been out of that third inning unscathed on just seven pitches had Jace Peterson been able to start a double play on Kole Calhoun’s ground ball to second. That miscue triggered a landslide on a night it appeared Colon may be trending in the right direction. Now, it’s harder to tell exactly what can be gathered in the wake of that disastrous nine-run frame.
Manager Brian Snitker indicated that Colon will make his next scheduled start, but the club may find itself reaching a tipping point over the next few weeks when it comes to that spot in rotation. A short term move to the bullpen or perhaps something more drastic could be discussed. The Braves still feel that they’re not there yet.
“So, just how long is the leash?”
That’s question people have been asking.
With two months’ worth of results to draw on, perhaps the big righty is finally hitting the proverbial wall that all pitchers do in the twilight of their careers. Atlanta made a $12.5 million investment in Colon, who has made just 11 starts in a Braves uniform. The results have not been pretty and the days of citing a small sample size will soon be at an end. It’s the crossroads between projections and indications.
If Colon is done, then where to from here?
Atlanta has two young starters with big league experience and two viable prospect options at the Triple-A level as well. Matt Wisler, who is currently operating as the long man in the Atlanta pen, could be pressed into action as a starter. Aaron Blair remains on the 40-man roster and would probably be in line for an opportunity as well if he can string together some good outings for Gwinnett.
The two prospects who have increased their stock in 2017 are right-hander Lucas Sims (4-3, 3.54 ERA) and left-hander Sean Newcomb (3-2, 2.96 ERA). Both have been among the International League leaders in strikeouts and ERA through 10 starts this season and both could be ready to take the next step. As the calendar turns to June, Sims and/or Newcomb should garner consideration to join the big league rotation for the first time.
The emergence of new blood in Atlanta’s starting five appears for now tied to the future of Colon. While there’s also been a fan trend of reflexively lumping Colon and fellow over-40-starter R.A. Dickey together, it’s fair to say that the knuckleballer has more or less been what was expected. Despite a couple of bad starts, Dickey has filled the role of innings-eater and provided a necessary veteran influence that had been lacking in recent years.
Is that X factor enough to maintain a place in rotation if his production does not warrant it?
See the above dissection of Colon, Bartolo.
Grant McAuley covers the Braves and MLB for 92-9 The Game. You can hear his show, “Around The Big Leagues” on Saturday mornings from 9-11 a.m. Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher. Follow Grant on Twitter and Facebook.