Bartolo Colon isn’t Braves’ only pitching problem, just the biggest


This isn’t meant to pick on Bartolo Colon. If there is one guy who shouldn’t be picked on, it’s him because, really, what was he supposed to do: Say no to the money?

He’s 43 years old. He had pitched more than 500 games in the major leagues. If there was a team so incredibly desperate for a stopgap and a funny bobblehead night that it was willing to give $12.5 million to a guy whose whipped right arm had endured 3,000 innings, that doesn’t make him a villain. It makes him a damn hero to every other 40-something looking for gold on the career off-ramp.

The problem is the Braves. They chose to move into a new house with old and/or broken-down furniture. They chose this because they didn’t want to hurry their prospects, or give up any in trade and — here’s what the front office doesn’t like to broadcast — winning wasn’t the highest of priorities this season.

The executives knew seats in the stadium would sell. They believed the lineup would be competitive. They felt confident they wouldn’t lose 90-plus games again, so they could always sell fans on “progress” after the season.

The Braves are on pace to lose 105. That may change, but it seemed worth pointing out.

After the well-chronicled 20-10 finishing kick last season, the Braves have started this season 11-20. That is not all on Colon, even if he does check in with the worst ERA on the block at 7.55.

The Braves’ pitching staff has the worst ERA in the majors at 4.93. Their starters’ combined ERA is 5.02 (29th in the majors). The rotation also ranks only 25th in completed innings (which stresses a less-than-great bullpen), 29th in strikeouts, 29th in WHIP (walks-hits per inning), 27th in batting average and down somewhere among the dregs in pretty much any other stat that matters.

Back to Colon. He was supposed to be part of the solution. Instead, he’s the biggest part of the problem. He has allowed more hits, runs and home runs than anybody else. His past three starts have been disasters: 25 hits, 19 earned runs and five home runs in only 14 2/3 innings (ERA 11.66).

Big. Not sexy.

This is what Braves’ president of baseball operations John Hart said about Colon after the signing: “He’s a guy that makes your club better in a number of ways. This is a deal that made a lot of sense for us.”

Hart has had a good career. He’s a really nice guy. So let me put this as nicely as possible: He does not want to be remembered for those words. (Neither Hart nor Coppolella responded to a request for an interview.)

Yes, it’s early. The baseball adage is you don’t pay attention to the standings until after Memorial Day, but 31 games is a reasonable sampling size. If you’re betting on significant top-to-bottom improvement in the rotation, it means you like playing the odds.

Julio Teheran (4.69 ERA, 1.512 WHIP) is off to the worst start of his career. If one is looking for an indictment of new pitching coach Chuck Hernandez, there it is. Former pitching coach Roger McDowell, who was surprisingly fired after last season by general manager John Coppolella, was tough on pitchers, but he also got the best out of Teheran.

R.A. Dickey (4.29) and Jaime Garcia (4.33), other attempted short-term fixes, might have served as reasonable patchwork for the rotation on their own. But the decision by Coppolella and Hart to go all in on Colon, Dickey and Garcia for $32.5 million as 60 percent of the rotation has backfired miserably to this point.

It didn’t have to be like this. The Braves could have traded for a top-flight proven starter, who would’ve enabled every other pitcher to drop a spot in the rotation and presumably improve the overall product.

Chris Sale of the Chicago White Sox was discussed. But Coppolella balked at the asking price. Postscript: Chicago sent Sale to Boston, where he has an ERA of 1.92 and ranks third in the American League in innings and second in WHIP.

Tampa Bay’s Chris Archer was central to some trade rumors. But the Rays’ apparent demands scared off inquiring clubs. Postscript: Archer has 3.04 ERA and leads the A.L. in innings and is second in strikeouts.

So where are the Braves now? Stuck.

They’re forced to wait and hope Colon turns it around because Coppolella has shown no inclination to trade prospects. They also don’t want to rush up any of their young arms because it’s debatable whether anybody is ready.

Matt Wisler has tried and failed. He could be back, but he allowed seven runs (six earned) and eight hits in 5 2/3 in his last start. Aaron Blair’s ERA in Gwinnett is 6.26, and he’s steadily sliding off the radar. The two best starters in Triple-A this season have been Lucas Sims and (3-0, 2.57) and Sean Newcomb (2-2, 2.89).

But this is not the guessing game the Braves wanted to be playing before the middle of May. They hoped their grand plan to stall for another year would work. Instead, they’re hoping Colon and Dickey (42) start to look younger than their age — and if they don’t, they need to figure out a Plan B.



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