Last week, the Atlanta Braves seemingly cornered the market on lovable quadragenarian hurlers who once donned Mets caps. On Thursday, the Braves signed 42-year-old knuckleballer R.A. Dickey to a one-year, guaranteed $8 million deal with a club option for 2018. The next day, Atlanta agreed to terms with 43-year old Bartolo Colon on a guaranteed $12.5 million deal, which also includes a team option for 2018.
By signing Dickey and Colon, the Braves are adding a pair of experienced starters with 769 career starts and a combined age of 85. But both don’t require the sort of long-term contracts that would hamper payroll flexibility as the franchise prepares to move into SunTrust Park. The pair of former Cy Young winners can soak up innings and keep the team from feeling the need to rush its prospects to the majors before they’re ready.
The Braves are committing $20.5 million guaranteed for the two next seasons, and nothing more. If Colon and/or Dickey are good and the teams good, everybody wins. If one or both of them are pitching well and the team’s bad, Atlanta can trade them for a useful future piece. Plus, since a weak starting-pitching market tabs Rich Hill, Ivan Nova and Jason Hammel as the best of the bunch, Colon and Dickey were among the better options out there despite their advancing age.
“Big Sexy” went 15-8 with a 3.43 ERA for the Mets this past season. He was picked for the All-Star Game and memorably became the oldest player in baseball history to hit his first career homer. The rotund right-hander had 44 wins for the Mets over the last three seasons, and he achieved that while throwing almost exclusively fastballs. Despite making his MLB debut the day the now-closed Turner Field, Colon can still eat innings, which are high-carb.
Only seven pitchers have thrown at least 190 innings in each of the past four seasons, and that list includes Madison Bumgarner, Jon Lester, Max Scherzer and Colon. Of 175 qualified pitchers over that span, Colon’s 3.59 ERA ranks 59th, slightly ahead of the likes of Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander. If he throws another 190 innings in 2017, he’ll be one of only three pitchers to do it five times after the age of 40.
Meanwhile, like Colon, Dickey relies on one pitch. But the knuckleball doesn’t age poorly because its effectiveness isn’t reliant on age or velocity. Heck, Tim Wakefield was an All-Star at 42. Dickey didn’t bring the Blue Jays the kind of value expected when he joined the team in a 2013 deal that included Noah Synderggard and Travis d’Arnaud. But he still gobbled up innings and gave Toronto four solid seasons for the most part.
From 2011 to 2015, Dickey ranked fourth in the majors behind James Shields, Clayton Kershaw and Felix Hernandez with 1,097 innings pitched. The durable Dickey has made at least 26 starts every year this decade and had five straight years with at least 32 starts and 200 innings before this past season, which ended in disappointment when he was left off Toronto’s postseason roster. But he should benefit from a return to the National League, where he won 2012 Cy Young honors with the Mets.
Colon and Dickey will help fortify a shaky rotation that didn’t produce anyone with double-figure wins this past season but does feature two-time All-Star Julio Teheran and intriguing youngsters Matt Wisler and Mike Foltynewicz. The two aging right-handers will also improve upon the Braves defense, as Atlanta pitchers finished 2016 with -8 Defensive Runs Saved, tied for 4th-worst in MLB. Colón led the majors with 8 Defensive Runs Saved in 2016 and Dickey tied for the AL lead in that stat with 7.
Even if the Braves aren’t very good next season, Colon and Dickey bring plenty of entertainment value. Colon’s Fred Flinstone body type makes his at-bats must see television and his behind-the-back-flips legendary. With 233 wins in his career, Colon is chasing history and thinking about passing Juan Marichal’s 243, the most by a pitcher born in the Dominican, and Dennis Martinez’s 245, the most by a Latin American pitcher. He’s also one of the game’s most popular players, which should make a good fit in the clubhouse.
As for Dickey, a knuckleball pitcher is a rare sight, with Steve Wright being the only other starter in the majors to employ the pitch. While employing two 40-year-old starters is more rare — the 1990 Texas Rangers featured a 43-year-old Nolan Ryan and 42-year-old Charlie Hough — it’s not unprecedented. More recently, a 41-year old Andy Pettitte and 38-year old Hiroki Kuroda combined to make 62 starts for the Yankees in 2013.
You can’t rely on Colon or Dickey to be a stopper, ace, or All-Star. But you can rely on them to turn in a quality season of 200 innings at the back of the rotation. The Braves will most likely not be very good, but watching the two elder statesman pitch every fifth day will be a treat for the fans and something the team can count on like death and taxes.