One thing that most baseball fans have in common is an uncanny ability to recall a massive quantity of trades, whether in admiration or with derision, and one of my favorite deals to look back on is the Bartolo Colon trade. In many ways, it was the traditional “star now for prospects later” type of transaction, but this trade also broke a lot of the common tropes of these types of swaps.
First, the backdrop of our story.
By this point in the history of the Montreal Expos, trades that involved the team adding rather than subtracting a star had become unusual. In the days before Jeff Loria strip-mined the Miami Marlins, the art dealer cut his teeth doing such as the managing partner of the Expos. For the first quarter-century of the team’s existence, they were owned by Charles Bronfman, whose money came from from the family’s liquor empire, Seagram’s. Loria had been trying to purchase a team for some time and had been bested in previous attempts to buy the Expos and the Baltimore Orioles. A group of investors led by team president Claude Brochu purchased the team instead in order to keep it in Montreal.
One of the unintentional results of baseball’s labor-owner strife in 1994 was that it sabotaged Brochu’s master plan. The team missed out on their best chance for a World Series, and the lost revenue left Brochu in a position to have to seek additional funding from the rest of the investors, resulting in the team’s shift to a strategy of selling off its stars. This was accelerated further when Loria purchased enough of the Expos to become the new managing partner in 1999. Loria stopped pursuing the new ballpark and turned down broadcast fees for 2000. A few years later, the rest of the partners initiated a RICO lawsuit against Loria.
On November 6, 2001, MLB’s team owners voted 28-2 to remove two teams before the 2002 season. The MLBPA unsurprisingly objected strenuously, filing a grievance about the possible contraction of two clubs, most usually thought of as being the Expos and the Minnesota Twins. Legal complications also made contraction difficult: Florida’s attorney general subpoenaed communications from Bud Selig, Minnesota judge Harry Crump granted a temporary injunction that ordered the Twins to honor the final year of their stadium lease, and the House Judiciary Committee started making some noise.
In the midst of all of this came one of the oddest three-way transactions in baseball history when MLB gave Loria $120 million for the Expos and then lent him $38 million to buy the Florida Marlins from John Henry, who needed to sell because his group had been approved to purchase the Boston Red Sox. MLB announced that there wouldn’t be contraction for 2002, but expressed a desire to try again before 2003.
The 2002 Expos didn’t play baseball as if they were dead men walking. After four consecutive sub-70-win seasons, the team that MLB didn’t want to exist was making noise in the playoff race. At 40-36, buoyed by their stable of stars in their prime (Vladimir Guerrero, Jose Vidro, Javier Vazquez, and so on), they were only three games back in the wild card race on the morning of June 27th. With zero support from MLB’s team ownership and a realistic chance that the club would relocate to eternal oblivion after the 2003 season, Omar Minaya made a bold win-now move, acquiring Colon and the forgotten Drew brother, Tim, from the Cleveland Indians in return for Brandon Phillips, Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore, and veteran slugger Lee Stevens. On the morning of the trade, the ZiPS projections, when re-run for 2002, gave the Expos a 18% shot at making the playoffs, mostly via the wild card. With Colon, that number popped to 29%, as large a difference as you can expect with the addition of a single pitcher.
Bartolo did just what he was supposed to, going 10-4 with a 3.31 ERA in 17 starts for the Expos, enough for him to snag a vote on the back of the NL Cy Young ballot that fall. It turned out to be enough to get Montreal their first ticket to the playoffs since their only visit in 1981. Once it became quite clear that the Expos would continue to be a thing in 2003, Minaya was forced into a second Colon trade, picking up Rocky Biddle, Orlando Hernandez (El Duque!), and Jeff Liefer in return. Suffice it to say, this group was not as successful as the players the Expos gave up for Colon.
Phillips, Baseball America’s No. 7 prospect heading into 2003, worked out marvelously and had the longest career of the players traded for Colon, playing in his final MLB game just a week after Colon’s in 2018 (I’m still crossing my fingers for another comeback!). Alas, it was not to be for the Indians. His first significant go-around in the majors in 2003 resulted in a bleak .208/.242/.311, -0.8 WAR line, and he spent the next two years as a seemingly forgotten Buffalo Bison. The Reds took a chance on Phillips early in the 2006 season, sending Jeff Stevens to the Indians, and they had their second baseman for the next decade.
This was a better-than-average result for a projection for a Triple-A prospect. Phillips stayed around a little longer than ZiPS expected, but in this case, I think it pretty much nailed the type of player he would be: a good 2B who would hit for decent averages and some pop, though not wow anybody with the on-base percentages.
Lee was a star for a good five-year stretch after recovering from a 2007 groin injury. He won a Cy Young for his 2008 breakout season and went to the World Series in 2009 and 2010, first with the Philadelphia Phillies and then the Texas Rangers. Lee was nearing his 150th win in the majors in 2014 until elbow pain forced him to the disabled list. He never returned, his last game coming a month before his 36th birthday.
ZiPS was quite high on Cliff Lee after 2013 and thought that given his control and the level of his domination, that he’d age better than most starting pitchers do and be able to survive a lot of the age-related decline. In this case, the projection gave him the bulk numbers needed to make a good Hall of Fame case; the voters are more progressive analytically than they’ve ever been, but we’re far from the point at which a pitcher with 147 wins wouldn’t face overwhelming headwinds in the voting. Eclipse 200 wins with clear sabermetric totals that push for induction and Lee would likely at least have a fighting chance, especially since memories are short and the bulk of his career value came later.
Sizemore, on the other hand, didn’t get to enjoy his status as a star for as long as Phillips or Lee. From 2005-08, Sizemore established himself as one of the best center fielders in the game, hitting .281/.372/.496 over those four seasons while collecting an impressive 27.3 WAR. That last number was good enough for fourth in baseball among position players over that time frame, behind only Albert Pujols, Chase Utley, and Alex Rodriguez.
That’s a pretty lofty list, and of the other 19 players, as many as 11 could eventually be in the Hall of Fame. Sizemore’s apogee turned out to be a relatively brief one. He played through elbow pain throughout the 2009 season and just a week after September elbow surgery, also required a procedure to deal with a sports hernia. Sizemore’s 2010 campaign ended quickly due to microfracture surgery on his ailing knee, and 2011 was ruined by another knee injury and another hernia operation. After signing a one-year, $5 million contract to return to the Indians in 2012, back problems and a second microfacture surgery prevented him from playing a single game.
A free agent again after 2012, Sizemore remained unsigned until just before spring training in 2014, when he signed a one-year, $750,000 incentive-laden pillow contract with the Boston Red Sox. He never returned to his previous form and was released in June. After stints with the Phillies and Rays as a part-timer in 2014 and 2015, Sizemore walked away from the game, becoming an advisor for the Cleveland Indians.
If ZiPS was right, that list of 20 from a little while ago could have likely been expanded to include 12 Hall of Famers. Sizemore wasn’t some schlub lucking into a few All-Star seasons; he was a well-rounded talent who was just starting to get the credit that his play deserved. The injuries were a real loss for Sizemore, the Cleveland Indians, and baseball fandom as a whole. Hall induction would still not have been a guarantee — I’m still fuming at the utter malpractice of the BBWAA when it came to Jim Edmonds — but Sizemore at least doesn’t get one-and-outed, I hope.
The Bartolo Colon trade will always go down as one of the most interesting ones, in light of the circumstances surrounding the Expos and the fact that every one of the principals in the trade worked out, at least for a time. And if Colon makes one final return to the majors, he’ll be in the rare position of being a star traded for prospects that — despite all the prospects becoming stars — still somehow outlasted them in the end.