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Other Smart Moves from the Past 25 Years: Yankees sign Bartolo Colón

Big Sexy’s brief stint in the Bronx was the beginning of one of the most incredible late-career resurgences of any MLB pitcher

New York Yankees v New York Mets Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Editor’s note: Our “25 Smartest Moves of the Past 25 Moves” series might have concluded, but with the lockout still in force, we thought that it would be fun to take a week to shout out five other savvy transactions that just barely missed the cut of the top 25 vote. Enjoy!

The Yankees entered the 2010-11 offseason on the heels of a stinging elimination at the hands of the Rangers in Game 6 of the ALCS. The reining title holders had failed to defend their crown and were eager to get back to the Fall Classic. In order to do that, they would need to reinforce key areas of the roster, and so they faced the winter with a clear wishlist in hand.

The starting rotation was list item number one. Behind ace CC Sabathia, the Yankees had no true sure-bets to start games. A.J. Burnett significantly regressed after a solid debut season in the Bronx. Andy Pettitte had retired and Javier Vázquez had been released. Phil Hughes won 18 games in the previous season prior but the underlying stats weren’t as rosy, while Iván Nova was an up-and-coming though still raw prospect. Luckily for the Yankees, one of the best pitchers in baseball was hitting the free agent market.

Cliff Lee was Brian Cashman’s White Whale, and for good reason. The Yankees GM had front-row seats to see Lee utterly dominate the loaded New York lineup, allowing only two hits in eight shutout innings in Game 3 of the the ALCS. Cashman had attempted to acquire Lee at the prior deadline and now had his chance to leverage the full might of the Yankees war chest to get his man.

We all know how that saga turned out. Lee took a $30 million discount on the Yankees’ offer to instead join the Phillies’ video game rotation of Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt. So, Cashman had to scramble to cobble together a rotation, pivoting to affordable veterans with the lone impact starter off the board. Little did they know that the 38-year-old pitcher signed to a minor league deal that January would use that contract as a springboard to stage one of the most remarkable late-age comebacks ever seen by a major league pitcher.

Signing Details: Signed to minor league contract, converted to a one-year, $900,000 deal upon addition to major league roster.

Transaction Date: January 26, 2011

NYY stats : 29 games, 8-10, 164.1 IP, 4.00 ERA, 107 ERA+, 3.83 FIP, 135 K, 7.4 K/9, 2.2 BB/9, 1.290 WHIP, 2.3 fWAR

From his major league debut in 1997 with Cleveland through his AL Cy Young winning campaign in 2005, Bartolo Colón was one of the best starting pitchers in baseball. He ranked in the top-12 in games started, innings pitched, wins, strikeouts, and fWAR during that time. However, thanks to a succession of shoulder and elbow injuries, the once-dominant righty made only 48 appearances between 2006 and 2009 and missed the entire 2010 season; he seemed like a shell of his former self. Nonetheless, the Yankees gave him a shot on a minor league deal, thanks to a tip from bench coach Tony Peña, who managed Colón in winter league play.

Colón was added to the major league roster after impressing in his spring training invite, starting the season in the bullpen. After three relief appearances, he made his first big league start in 635 days, replacing Phil Hughes in the rotation after the latter landed on the then-DL. Colón collected the win, tossing 6.2 innings while giving up two runs against seven strikeouts.

The following month saw Colón pitch two of the more impressive outings of his career in a 12-day span. First, he threw eight shutout innings, surrendering just three hits in a 4-1 victory over the Orioles. Then, Colón logged his first complete-game shutout since 2006 in a four-hit gem as the Yankees beat the Athletics 5-0.

Through his first 14 starts of the season, Colón was right up there with Sabathia as the Yankees’ most effective starting pitcher. He was 6-3 and owned a team-best 2.88 ERA, striking out almost a batter an inning with a WHIP just over one. And he was doing it all without the overpowering velocity that defined his early career success in Cleveland and Anaheim. Instead, Colón relied on one of my favorite pitches of all time, a Greg-Maddux-esque tailing two-seamer with a devilish amount of horizontal movement. He would start the pitch at a left-handed hitter’s hip and it would wind up over the middle of the plate.

Unfortunately for Colón, the second half of his 2011 campaign was a much rockier experience. He pitched to a 5.18 ERA across his final 15 starts, culminating in his demotion to the bullpen for the postseason. He did not make an appearance in the ALDS against the Tigers and would join Oakland on a one-year, $2 million pact that winter. (Colón went on to pitch for seven more years, making a pair of All-Star teams.) He may only have played one season in pinstripes, but Bartolo Colón will live in the hearts of many Yankees fans who witnessed his improbable resurgence.

Colón is one of the rare players in the history of the game whose legend outgrew his résumé. And that’s not to make light of what he accomplished in his career — he stands atop the career wins list of any pitcher born in Latin America. It’s more a recognition of what a truly unique career he had as one of the unparalleled, larger-than-life characters. There are few players who achieve cult hero status, but Big Sexy is certainly one of them.

I know these aren’t from Colón’s time with the Yankees, but I just had to share my three favorite moments of his career.

I hope you enjoyed this brief foray down memory lane as much as I did.