It's easy to get sentimental about Bartolo Colon. In one gloriously reason-defying package, he is the patron saint of unathletic athletes; a weirdly beautiful symbol of inexplicable effectiveness. He is a human celebration of all that makes baseball fun. He is Big Sexy. In the fractious world of baseball fandom—divided by our team allegiances, our various other rooting interests, our views on the designated hitter—we can be united in our appreciation for Bartolo. He is a strikeout when you need it most, a delightfully unexpected behind-the-back play, a runaway helmet after a wild swing. He is ours.
He is also baseball's only remaining Montreal Expo.
With Maicer Izturis' recent retirement announcement, Colon now represents the last relic of the departed franchise. Brought aboard in the summer of 2002 to bolster an ultimately unsuccessful playoff bid, he was traded away to the White Sox just six months later. But his performance in Montreal is now little more than a footnote to what has become a much more well-known story—the trade that brought him there.
At this point, more than a decade later, the transaction has been subject to any number of retrospectives and postmortem analyses. It's been called "one of baseball's all-time swindles" and an "early candidate for worst trade of the century," among other unfortunate characterizations. In terms of baseball winners and losers, this trade is well-trodden ground, so we won't linger too much on that perspective here. But for giving context to Bartolo's legacy, his weird longevity—there's perhaps no better lens than that blockbuster trade.
To refresh: it was late June, and though the Expos' future as a franchise was in doubt, the team was outperforming expectations by making a case for relevance in the playoff picture. A month before the trade deadline, Montreal GM Omar Minaya decided to go all in, sending three of the team's top prospects and veteran first baseman Lee Stevens to Cleveland in exchange for Colon and fellow starting pitcher Tim Drew (yes, J.D. and Stephen's brother).
The initial reaction wasn't necessarily that Cleveland had pulled off a transaction for the ages. But it became clear soon enough, as the baseball world watched those three prospects develop into a Cy Young-winning starter, an electrifying centerfielder with a big bat, and an all-star middle infielder. It's hard to identity any single player who would be deemed an equal match for the trio of Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore and Brandon Phillips, but if there is one, Colon isn't it.
A transaction isn't measured by a snapshot of its products at a singular given moment; it's done in the collective sense, the longterm view, the scrutiny of contracts, player value, team needs and myriad other factors. And in those terms—the terms that matter—this transaction is every bit the grand steal it's been described as for most of the last decade. But let's indulge for a moment and look at the trade not from that logical aggregate point of view, but from the aforementioned singular snapshot: a snapshot of right now.
Colon is expected to do, more or less, what he did last year and the year before and the year before that. He won't be close to outstanding, but he'll be functional. He will be 43 years old, and he will continue to rely on a fastball that is somehow more difficult to figure out than it seemingly should be, and he will likely be just fine. The last time he was worth less than two wins, according to fWAR, was before his stem cell treatment in 2010. There's no reason to expect he'll be any less reliable this year.
Lee, of course, announced his retirement earlier this winter—finally closing out his career after sitting out the 2015 season due to an elbow injury. Sizemore is currently unsigned, after several years of bouncing from team to team, trying and failing to regain a semblance of his pre-injury form. Phillips alone remains in MLB, hoping this season to repeat what was a resurgent 2015, as opposed to the several lackluster years that preceded it. Steamer, ZiPS and PECOTA all project him to be no more productive than Colon, if not slightly less so.
To look at this trio of erstwhile prospects now is to see just how striking Colon's durability is. It's not just that he's outlasted the peaks of Lee and Sizemore (despite being five years older than the former and a decade older than the latter), but that he's outlasted their entire careers. He pitched through Lee's evolution from erratic question mark to elite ace; and he pitched through Sizemore's dazzling zenith, his debilitating injuries, and his repeated attempts at a comeback.
Colon outlived the Expos; Colon by and large outlived the products of this trade; and Colon very well might outlive us all.
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Emma Baccellieri is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. You can follow her on Twitter at @emmabaccellieri.