Commentary

Big Bartolo brings his weigh game

Super-sized Bartolo Colon is long shot as Yanks search for fifth starter in thin rotation

Updated: February 20, 2011, 8:59 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- At New York Yankees training camp, this was supposed to be the spring of Cliff Lee.

Instead, it's been the spring of Sara Lee. And Cap'n Crunch, Dunkin' Donuts and Newman's Own popcorn with plenty of butter and salt.

Jenny Craig could get a job here as team nutritionist. Richard Simmons might want to come to establish a step class. Suddenly, it no longer seems odd that David Wells is in camp as a "special instructor." And how long will it be before the crew of "The Biggest Loser" sets up their cameras in the Yankees clubhouse?

On Friday, Bartolo Colon was the latest Yankees pitcher to step, if not on the scale at least on a soapbox, up and declare, "I have a weight problem."

Colon's declaration fell somewhere in between the words of CC Sabathia, who had a semi-success story to share, and Joba Chamberlain, who is still deep in denial and may eventually need an intervention.

[+] EnlargeBartolo Colon
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallBartolo Colon is six years removed from his Cy Young season of 2005.

The back wall of the Yankees clubhouse has been renamed Fat City this spring, and if Chamberlain was smart he would have demanded Sabathia's locker on one side of him and Colon's on the other, so he would appear svelte by comparison.

The way it stands now, Joba has Sabathia to his left but to his right stands Freddy Garcia, who at 6-foot-4 appears relatively slim even though he's listed at 260 pounds.

Colon, a fireplug of a man at about 5-10, admitted to 267 pounds, said he has pitched in the big leagues at as heavy as 278 and wasn't embarrassed to admit he won't come near to dropping the 25 pounds he would like to lose by the end of spring training.

"My whole family's big," he cheerfully admitted. "So I'm working hard to get down as far as I can, but it's gonna be hard to do in spring training."

Asked if he was able to keep up with the running-intensive camp Joe Girardi oversees, Colon said, "I'm not 20 years old like these kids here. I have my own program."

Which sounded like a nice way of saying, "Uh, no."

But the truth is, Colon, who turns 38 years old in May, is at camp on a long shot, competing for a No. 5 starter's job that he has very little chance to win. (I resisted the temptation to say "Fat chance.") For him, the numbers that are likely to determine his future will be on the radar gun, not the scale.

"The problem isn't with my weight," he said. "It's with my arm."

With Lee opting for Philadelphia and Andy Pettitte opting for home on the range, this is what it has come down to for the Yankees. Six years ago, Bartolo Colon won the AL Cy Young Award after he won 21 games for the Angels.

Now, he comes into a clubhouse with the body of a janitor and is getting a chance to make the roster as part of the starting rotation, along with Garcia, Sergio Mitre and a couple of kids who have never even pitched in Triple A, Andrew Brackman and Adam Warren.

(It has already been determined that prospects Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos will begin the season with the AA Trenton Thunder.)

Soon that dubious crew may be joined by Kevin Millwood, another retread the Yankees have "strong interest in," according to a report in the New York Post.

"Define strong," said GM Brian Cashman, who didn't deny the "interest" portion of that statement.

Before a single pitcher has thrown a real pitch to a live batter, it is clearer than ever that the Yankees need pitching help.

Reading the names on a piece of paper before the start of spring training was one thing. Actually seeing the men in the, um, flesh is a serious jolt to the senses. These are the guys who are going to pitch on the days that Sabathia and Phil Hughes are not? It almost makes the prospect of seeing A.J. Burnett out there every five days seem comforting.

"These spots are going to have to be earned," said Girardi. But whether, in fact, the No. 4 and 5 spots in the rotation are actually going to be won or inherited is yet to be determined.

Alll winter long, Cashman had spoken as if Ivan Nova's name has already been inked into the No. 4 spot, even though he has just 42 big league innings pitched, three decisions notched (1-2) and a 4.50 ERA.

On Thursday, Girardi pointed toward Nova's starting debut last season in Toronto, in which he wriggled out of a bases-loaded, none-out jam, allowing just one run.

"I saw a lot of poise there," Girardi said. "I saw a guy who didn't panic when he was in the midst of something. That showed me a lot. This kid loves to have the baseball in his hand. I'm sure he learned a lot last year. We just have to see him take it over from what he learned last year and make steps."

Nova's attributes are obvious, but so, too, is his inexperience. It seems to be asking a lot to expect a full workload out of him, and asking a lot of the team to rely on him every five days.

And yet, turning to the fifth spot, things are even shakier. Right now, Garcia has to be considered the frontrunner for the job, based on the 12-6 record he posted with the White Sox last year.

But if this job really needs to be earned in the spring, Garcia may, in fact, be a long shot, since by his own admission he is traditionally a miserable performer in February and March. He never would have made this club with the spring he had last year, allowing 40 hits in 21 2/3 Cactus League innings and posting a 10.38 ERA.

"You never see spring training numbers on the back of a baseball card, right?," Garcia said. "You got to pitch good in the regular season."

"Maybe I don't concentrate so good in spring training. This year, it's got to be different. I got to go after it."

The coaching staff is familiar with Garcia's spring training struggles.

"We are aware of that and factor it in," said Girardi, who hardly has much of a choice.

Garcia, who once threw 95 mph but now admits that at times can hit no more than 83 on the gun, survives on deception and guile, and a split-finger fastball he developed midgame a few years back when nothing else was working.

"He finds a way to get guys out," Girardi said.

Colon, who has had shoulder problems as well as weight issues, has a 14-21 record since his Cy Young season and hasn't thrown a pitch in the major leagues since July 24, 2009. He pitched for the Aguilas Cibaenas of the Dominican League this winter and went 2-1 with a 1.93 ERA.

"I'm not throwing hard like I used to, but I'm throwing strikes," Colon said.

Neither pitcher has done much more than throw a single bullpen session each, and when Girardi was asked Friday how they looked he barely stifled a laugh. "It's tough to put much stock in bullpen sessions, especially this early in camp," he said. "They both look fine."

He meant on the mound, not in the clubhouse. And anyway, Babe Ruth wouldn't have won any Mr. Olympia contests, either.

"I'm in a fight to make this team," Garcia said. "I can't worry about anybody else. If I can't pitch, I'm [sunk], you know?"

The same can be said of the Yankees. Right now, their hopes reside in Fat City, where the pickings are lean indeed.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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