No matter what other earthly magic Bartolo Colon may engender during his few remaining days in baseball, my lasting impression of him is already fully formed. It's the sight of him in post-pennant glow last October. The New York Mets -- Colon's eighth team in an 18-year career -- had just pulled off a shocking sweep of Chicago in the National League Championship Series, and the 42 year-old pitcher is standing there in Wrigley Field's foul territory as a spirited cadre of Mets fans celebrate in the stands behind the dugout. Colon is looking out toward the field with raw emotion as he soaks in the reality of his first-ever trip to the World Series. Happiness, gratitude, relief. It's all of these at any given time, depending on your mood or perhaps the time of day. This image is my "Mona Lisa."
Few figured Colon would have a large role to play in the World Series against Kansas City. (He didn't.) And with Colon wrapping up a two-year, $20 million contract that ended up something of a bargain for Mets management -- 62 starts over that time, and with decent peripherals -- I think most fans figured that was the end of him in Queens and that he'd latch on with some other club for an incentive-laden, one-year deal. The development of the Mets' young arms had outpaced all reasonable expectations in 2015, so surely Colon would get squeezed out of the starting five.
But then came a couple of important developments. One was that the Mets decided they were going to be a bit more cautious with Zack Wheeler, who is on the extended Tommy John rehab plan that worked so well with Matt Harvey. Instead of Wheeler missing only a couple of months, the Mets realized July 1 was a more realistic target date, which basically means he's out until the All-Star break, which also means you need to be serious about who that fifth starter will be after Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz. Jon Niese went to Pittsburgh in the Neil Walker deal, so it couldn't be him. And the Mets ultimately decided that their big offseason spending would center on one Yoenis Cespedes, which, after his 53 or so home runs after the break last season, made perfect sense.
The other big break was that Colon himself decided to come back, to turn down more money from other teams for the hope of returning to Citi Field, bolstering the rotation for at least the first half, and maybe just getting one last crack at a World Series ring. With his durability and uncanny ability to junkball his way through a season with a fastball barely scraping 90 mph, Colon could've stood to make at least $10 million or so with a team that would've guaranteed him a rotation spot. Instead, he came back to the Mets for a shade over $7 million and will be counted on to hold down that No. 5 spot until Wheeler makes his return in the heart of summer. After that, nothing is guaranteed, but if the Mets are to contend this season, they're going to need Colon to bank some wins early and do his part to keep New York ahead of Washington, which figures to not quite have everything go wrong yet again as it did last year.
Because the Nationals' biggest question right now is their back-of-the-rotation depth, this division looks more like it's going to be won on not whether Harvey and Syndergaard outshine Max Scherzer and a contract-year Stephen Strasburg, but whether Matz and Colon/Wheeler are more reliable than Tanner Roark and Joe Ross. At this point, the advantage would seem to go to the Mets, but that only assumes Wheeler comes back with no regression and Colon holds up in his age-43 season.
And even if Colon bombs out in his final big league campaign, with age finally catching up to him in a way that right now feels unfathomable, he's already cemented his folk-hero status in Flushing. But if he can once again help form the foundation of a playoff team with the chance to bring home a title 30 years after the last -- as Kansas City did last season -- then Colon might well start posing for his statue outside Citi Field now.
And someone be sure to order a whole lot of bronze.