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Odds stacked against a Colon comeback

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports

TAMPA, Fla. – Comeback stories grow like beer lines in spring, when anybody with a few spare weeks and a presentable resume can get a few at-bats or a couple innings, just enough to convince a guy this is harder than he remembered.

The New York Yankees alone have enough of them to fill a minivan, among them the converted (Brian Anderson(notes)), the fallen (Mark Prior), the brittle (Eric Chavez(notes)), even the young (Russell Martin(notes)) and the nomadic (Andruw Jones(notes)).

They often exist on the fringes of the team’s clubhouse and the game’s memory, where careers are free to die in relative peace, or occasionally to be stirred with some dignity.

And while you could hardly navigate a line of hamstring stretches in any camp without stumbling into one hardship case or another, few of those stories are a longer shot or carry greater potential consequences than Bartolo Colon’s(notes) with the Yankees.

He pitched two mostly unremarkable innings against the Philadelphia Phillies on Saturday afternoon, though the fact he got through them at nearly 270 pounds was reasonably impressive. Thrown seemingly from his right ear, as it had for the 13 years he’d done this in the big leagues, his fastball crept to 94 mph, according to one gun.

Given what starting pitching will mean to Joe Girardi and the Yankees, given they wouldn’t seem to have the horses to stay with the Boston Red Sox, and given that the Phillies were in town to remind everyone where their offseason went wrong, a from-nowhere season from Colon – or even a couple months that could get them to Chris Carpenter(notes) or some other stray ace – could be game-changing.

Probably, and realistically, it’s asking too much. Colon, who will be 38 in May, hasn’t thrown a major league pitch since July 24, 2009. In between then and now, he said, he was strengthening an arm that had seen debilitating elbow and shoulder issues. He insisted he never intended to retire, simply to rehab, and this winter he made seven tidy starts for Aguilas Cibaenas in the Dominican winter league. His manager was Yankees bench coach Tony Pena(notes). When winter ball was over he signed with the Yankees – $900,000 if he made the club.

While there are two jobs in the rotation to be won here, 24-year-old Ivan Nova(notes) would have to have a disastrous spring not to take one of them, and Freddy Garcia(notes) is the more proven – albeit only slightly – commodity. He did win 12 games last season for the Chicago White Sox, a time in which Colon was at home in the Dominican, planning for 2011 while eating himself into fresh belt holes.

He walked into camp and announced himself to be at least 25 pounds overweight, at which point the Yankees might have considered going ahead and spending that 900 grand somewhere else.

A comeback after sitting out a year-and-a-half, at nearly 38, with those arm ailments, and having been 14-21 with a 5.18 ERA for three teams over four seasons since collecting the 2005 AL Cy Young Award, that would be imposing.

The same comeback while dragging around what amounts to a manhole cover would be staggeringly impressive, if entirely unnecessary, but Colon appears to have chosen to fight two fronts instead of one.

It worked for a day, or 36 pitches worth, and against a late-February Phillies lineup that held not Jimmy Rollins(notes) and Chase Utley(notes) at the top, but Pete Orr(notes) and Ross Gload(notes). A man can only pitch to (or, for that matter, eat) what’s put in front of him, however, and Colon’s winter ball experience appears to have put him ahead in matters of command and velocity.

He always could pitch, at least before his shoulder went, followed by his elbow, and then his career, though apparently he wasn’t ready for it to end. So, rather than open spring by giving the ball to CC Sabathia(notes) or Phil Hughes(notes) – or, um, Andy Pettitte(notes) or Cliff Lee(notes) – the Yankees opted for an early view of Colon.

Afterward, he said, “I felt good, thank God, and I’m going to keep working hard and see what happens.”

He added that he believed he was “real close” to being what he once was, presumably meaning the pitcher who won 74 games from 2002-05. Of course, every comeback is driven by visions of what the game once was – easy and reliable. In a conversation the day before about superstars growing old, Girardi had said society tends to view its superstars as forever young, just as he still viewed Derek Jeter(notes) as a 22-year-old who barely knew his way around a clubhouse. It’s how players see themselves, how we all do, I’d suspect, even when – in Colon’s case – there’s really so much more to see.

Asked if, given Colon’s age, recent history of arm trouble, and inability to stay on a mound, he would be less inclined to entrust him with a roster spot, Girardi responded that Garcia shared some of those issues, Nova lacked experience and Sergio Mitre(notes) once had Tommy John surgery.

“We’re going to evaluate what we see,” he said. “He’s shown some strength in his arm. None of us knows over the long haul what’s going to happen, but right now he looks healthy.”

Sort of like he once did. You know, from a distance.