Montreal shockingly nabs Colon

By Jim Callis
June 27, 2002

If Major League Baseball had its way, the Expos would have ceased to exist during the offseason. Yet on Thursday it was Montreal that bolstered its improbable playoff run with the first blockbuster trade of the 2002 season. The Expos added legitimate No. 1 starter Bartolo Colon but had to surrender three prime prospects to the Indians: Brandon Phillips, the best shortstop in the minors; Cliff Lee, one of the top lefthanders in the upper minors; and Grady Sizemore, a very toolsy outfielder. Cleveland also took on first baseman Lee Stevens and gave up cash to lessen the financial hit on Montreal. The Expos also received righthander Tim Drew, who otherwise might have replaced Colon in the Indians rotation.

Colon, whose age was revised upward from 26 to 28 in the offseason amid rumors he’s even older, already has reached double figures in victories for the fifth straight season. He’s 10-4 with a career-low 2.55 ERA through 16 starts, though he has struck out an uncharacteristically low 75 in 116 innings. Bothered by soreness in his right side, Colon might miss one start but should make his Montreal debut no later than next week. His two best pitches are a mid-90s fastball that has been clocked as high as 100 mph, and a hard curveball. He has a lifetime record of 75-45, 3.92 in 162 big league games, including 873 strikeouts in 1,030 innings. He teams with Javier Vazquez to now give the Expos one of the best 1-2 starter combos in the majors. At $4.925 million this year and $6 million for 2003, Colon is signed at well below market value.

Phillips, who turns 21 on Friday, is a rare five-tool shortstop and he already has reached Triple-A. He has made constant progress since the Expos made him a second-round pick out of a Georgia high school in 1999. He hit .242-11-72 with 23 steals in low Class A during 2000, then jumped to .292-11-59 with 30 swipes in 122 games between high Class A and Double-A in 2001. This year he batted .327-9-35 with six steals in 60 Double-A games, and .257-1-25 in 10 contests at Ottawa. He has a very quick bat and could blossom into a 20-20 player in the major leagues. Phillips doesn’t have blazing speed and some scouts question whether he can stay at shortstop for the long term. But he’s very quick and instinctive, which makes him a basestealing threat and gives him the range to play short. He definitely has enough arm and athleticism for the position. The Indians may not be able to trade Omar Vizquel, who has $15 million remaining on his contract the next two seasons, so Phillips may break into their starting lineup as a replacement for third baseman Travis Fryman, whose $6 million option for 2003 certainly will be declined.

Lee, 23, was a fourth-round pick out of the University of Arkansas in 2000, when the Expos believed he was one of the top three college lefthanders available. He would have won the high Class A Florida State League ERA title with a 2.79 mark last year had a stiff shoulder not sidelined him for a month and left him 2 1/3 innings short of qualifying. Lee will show four above-average pitches at times (two- and four-seam fastballs, a slider and a curveball) and has made terrific strides with his command in 2002. In 15 starts at Double-A Harrisburg, he went 7-2, 3.23 with a 105-23 strikeout-walk ratio in 86 innings. Opponents were batting just .197 against him, and he’s leading the Eastern League in whiffs.

Sizemore, 19, was a third-round pick in 2000 out of a Washington high school and commanded a $2 million bonus in order to give up a football scholarship from Washington. His bat speed, foot speed and center-field range are all very impressive, and he should hit for power as he matures and learns to coordinate his swing better. He hit .268-2-61 with 32 steals as one of the youngest players in the low Class A Midwest League last season, and his 81 walks attested to a batting eye that’s very refined for his age. Sizemore has struggled somewhat in the pitcher-friendly FSL in 2002, batting .258-0-26 with nine steals in 75 games, though he has hit his share of doubles (15) and continued to show patience at the plate (36 walks).

Drew, 23, slowly has gotten back on track after the Indians threw off his development by foolishly rushing him to the big leagues two years ago. He and his older brother J.D., now a budding star with the Cardinals, made history in 1997 when they became the first siblings to go in the first round of the same draft. (A third brother, Florida State shortstop Stephen Drew, won BA’s 2002 Freshman of the Year award and could be a first-rounder in 2004.) A product of a Georgia high school, Tim has an unsightly 1-2, 8.39 record to show for 11 major league appearances, but he went 8-4, 3.27 in 15 starts for Triple-A Buffalo this year. His 43-23 strikeout-walk ratio in 96 innings is evidence of his fine command as well as his lack of an overpowering fastball. His best pitch is his changeup, and he needs to be more aggressive against big league hitters.

Stevens, 34, was included in the trade only because his $4 million salary and the $925,000 in cash matched for Colon’s 2002 salary, as the Expos can’t expand their Major League Baseball-controlled budget. He hit .190-10-31 in 63 games for Montreal, easily the worst performance in a 10-year career that has seen him bat .256-139-505 in 959 contests.

After they jettisoned a pair of potential Hall of Famers Roberto Alomar and Juan Gonzalez during the offseason, it’s obvious that the disappointing Indians’ goal has become to further slash salaries. But Colon is one player they should have held onto. He was more than affordable, and Cleveland can just let players like Fryman, Chuck Finley and talented but much more expensive Jim Thome walk at the end of the year. That said, once the Indians made the decision to deal Colon for prospects, they couldn’t have asked for any more in return. If the Expos were more certain of their future, they may have reconsidered this deal.