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Remembering Christian Colón

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A first-round pick short on regular season memories but long on post-season ones

World Series - Kansas City Royals v New York Mets - Game Five
A post-season hero
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

After a stellar if perhaps unspectacular collegiate career at baseball powerhouse Cal State - Fullerton—a career made possible when he chose not to sign after being drafted in the tenth round of the 2007 draft by the San Diego Padres out of Canyon High School in Anaheim—the NCAA All-American shortstop Christian Colón was drafted by the Kansas City Royals with the fourth pick of the draft in 2010.

The second post-Deric Ladnier first-round draft pick (succeeding Aaron Crow), Christian Colón came with the expectations of a first-round talent. Little did anyone know that the Royals were entering the Draft Day Dark Ages.

When coupled with the players to whom the Royals had been linked prior to the draft—namely Chris Sale and Yasmani Grandal—and compared against the seventh pick Matt Harvey and later first-rounders Christian Yelich, Aaron Sanchez (supplemental), and Noah Syndergaard (also supplemental), Colón quickly drew unfavorable comparisons to players could have selected in that spot as his draft-day peers (Bryce Harper and Manny Machado went first and third) ascended to the upper echelons of baseball’s elite.

Never mind that Barret Loux was the next pick of the draft and didn’t even sign or that nine other first round draft picks (not counting the supplemental section) never even played in the majors. Such is the nature of the draft.

Characterized as a low-ceiling/high-floor guy whose middling speed might move him off short but whose character, solid glove work, and decent plate discipline should make him a viable second baseman, Colón promptly signed with a $2.75MM bonus and was assigned to the High-A Wilmington Blue Rocks. The Royals’ brass thought that this would fast track him for the majors, with then-assistant general manager J.J. Picollo quoted saying:

"It's an advantage simply for the fact he's going to get a couple of hundred at-bats this summer and he's going to be around our coaches and our staff and learn our system," he said. "That will put him ahead of the timetable that would normally be out there for a first-round pick. But it was pretty clear Christian wants to play. He doesn't like sitting around. He wants to get out. I wouldn't say it's a surprise or not a surprise. When we drafted him, we were hopeful. But we knew going into it it may not happen that quickly."

Colón got 60 games in under his belt at Wilmington. Put into a notorious pitchers’ paradise, Colón slashed .278/.326/.380 with a .321 wOBA and 95 wRC+. With the relatively aggressive assignment and the consideration that Frawley Stadium distorted the picture of many prospects before him, his first season was hardly a rousing success, but the sounding of alarm bells was not yet in order.

The 2011 season started with Christian Colón in Double-A Northwest Arkansas with the shortstop finding himself ranked among the top 100 prospects in baseball by both Baseball America (#51) and Baseball Prospectus (#88). A year full of disappointment later (80 wRC+ is not what you want to see from a first-round draft pick, even when that prospect is in Double-A in his first full professional season), Colón found himself repeating the level and out of the running for any making any league-wide top prospect lists.

2012 was a different story. His second go at Northwest Arkansas was decidedly better. He hit .289/.364/.392 with a .346 wOBA and a 115 wRC+. Unfortunately the season was interrupted by two separate freak injuries. First he missed a month from mid-June to mid-July, stepping on a bat and injuring his foot. After a torrid week on rehab assignment in rookie ball (167 wRC+), he tore up the Texas League for two more weeks and earned a promotion to Triple-A Omaha. Five solid games into that promotion (163 wRC+), he fouled a ball off his face, resulting in an eye injury and bringing an encouraging 2012 to an abrupt end.

Colón’s 2013 was more like his 2011 than his 2012. In his first prolonged stint in the Pacific Coast League, Colon managed a mere 90 wRC+, slashing a meager (especially for a top prospect) .273/.335/.379 with a .325 wOBA in a typically offensively charged league.

Starting the season in Omaha for the second straight year, he improved his stock moderately, slashing .296/.360/.384 with a .338 wOBA and 98 wRC+ on June 28. He was called up on June 30, the same day Raúl Ibañez was signed and Justin Maxwell and Pedro Ciriaco were designated for assignment, the latter two in the throes of sub-replacement-level campaigns.

Over the next ten days, Colón was given two starts and was a late-inning replacement in four other games. Then he was back on the I-29 Shuttle, headed for Omaha, where he did nothing but hit for two weeks and found himself headed back to Kansas City to replace Danny Valencia’s spot on the 25-man roster in the midst of a roster shakeup—one that to more cynical fans reeked of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic—to try to spark something for a Royals lineup just two games over .500.

While those 2014 Royals went on a tear to squeak their way into the playoffs via a Wild Card berth, Colón saw six plate appearances over the next two weeks before finally getting some remotely consistent playing time, finding his way into 11 games (seven starts) over the Royals’ next 17 games. He slashed .280/.357/.320 in 28 plate appearances, but with rosters expanding to 40 in two days and bullpen help needed, he was headed back to Omaha on August 30.

Two days later, he was back in Kansas City, but in his first start back on September 2, he fractured his middle finger in the fourth inning and landed himself on the disabled list. Colón spent the next 25 days on the disabled list before getting activated on September 28. He was a late-inning replacement in Game 162 and was anything but a sure thing to be on the Royals’ postseason roster as they faced a one-game do-or-die tilt against the flagging Oakland Athletics.

As you may remember, the Wild Card Game was absolutely bonkers, a 12-inning heart-attack inducing barnburner [ed. read, relive, remember how good contention felt] that saw the Royals come back from the dead three times that culminated with Christian Colón—who entered the game in the 10th to pinch-bunt for Terrance Gore—doing this:

And then this:

And finally this:

While paying too much heed to what happens in the postseason can certainly be folly, Colón’s postseason situational heroics were key to starting a storybook run to the World Series that almost never started. He may not have thrown a complete-game shutout or saved the day throwing a runner out at the plate to preserve a one-run lead or hung MAJESTIC DONG to walk off the field victorious, but the former first-round pick’s modest heroism ensured a place in the annals of club history and prominent placement in any video retrospectives in the Royals Hall of Fame.

Ultimately the Royals came up a 90-feet and a Madison Bumgarner short of winning the World Series. Colón saw playing time in just one more postseason game, manning second after Terrance Gore pinch-ran for Omar Infante and scored the go-ahead run in the top of the ninth in a 4-4 Game 2 of the ALCS in Baltimore. For reasons defying explanation past the indignant but resigned muttering of the words “Ned Yost,” he was left off the roster heading into the World Series in favor of Jayson Nix, who was apparently a member of the 2014 Royals despite the statistical record disputing this claim.

Omar Infante came into the 2015 season suffering from tenderness in his right elbow from a bone spur that he elected not to have surgery on in the offseason. While Infante played sparingly during Spring Training, everything pointed to Infante being the everyday second baseman to start the season. Infante’s performance brought new meaning to the qualifier “abysmal.” Walking a mind-blowing 2.0% of the time—Why walk a guy when they can’t do anything with a meatball anyway?—Infante never once got his batting average over .269 or his on-base percentage over .275 or his slugging percentage over .384. Infante’s line on the season was a nightmare-inducing .220/.234/.318, good for a .238 wOBA and 42 wRC+ amassed over an Yostian 455 plate appearances. His -1.0 fWAR and -0.8 rWAR made him a literal black hole, sucking in all light that ventured within his gravitational pull.

From May 27 to the end of his season, Infante’s average never got above .240 and his on-base never got above .250. Yet over the next 86 games, Infante played in 79 of them getting 77 starts. Infante’s poor play and Alex Gordon’s groin injury necessitated the July acquisition of Ben Zobrist, but Infante remained a staple in the lineup until Gordon returned.

All this while, Colón languished on the bench. Despite making the Opening Day roster, he didn’t see a minute of playing time on the field until the ninth game of the season. More than Infante’s struggles at the plate, early injuries to Alcides Escobar left the door slightly ajar for Colón to get on the field. First, the infamous Brett Lawrie slide into second beset the Royals’ shortstop with a mild left knee sprain on April 17, then Escobar went on the seven-day disabled list when Danny Salazar hit him in the face on April 29.

Over the course of 22 Royals games from April 16 to May 10, Colón played in 19 of them getting 17 starts. He slashed .271/.328/.322 over this stretch with a non-aberrant .314 BABIP at least theoretically suggesting the performance could be sustainable, all while logging the bulk of that time at short.

After the Royals traversed the injury guantlet, Colón wasted away on the bench, just as any good first-round draft pick in his rookie season should do.

From May 11 to July 2 in a span of 44 games, Colón found his way into a game just 10 times, five of those games being starts. Just one of those starts came at second base in Infante’s stead. In 21 trips to the plate over those 53 days—equating roughly to always being a pinch-hitter—Colón slashed a rough .158/.238/.211 made only slightly less egregious by the .200 BABIP he suffered during this stretch of inactivity.

The person who was far too important to take out of the lineup, Omar Infante, slashed an invaluable .225/.228/.281 while the former first-rounder couldn’t beg his way into an at-bat.

If prospects need to play, the treatment of Christian Colón at the hands of Ned Yost and the Royals was positively mystifying.

In the midst of a pennant run, Ned Yost insisted upon playing an obviously terrible second baseman EVERY DAY while ignoring the presence of prospect with the upside of being likely better than Omar Infante on his bench every goddamn day for 53 days.

Mercifully (at least if ignoring the significant pay cut when not on the 25-man roster), Christian Colón was optioned to Omaha on July 3 swapping out with infielder Dusty Coleman. Ned Yost said of the move at the time:

“We wanted to send him down for a while and let him get some at-bats and get playing regularly again,” Yost said. “In case something happens, he’d be available. … As long as everybody’s healthy, it doesn’t make any sense having him sit here. If you send him down, get him at-bats, get him playing short, third, second, (then) if we have an injury, he’s ready to go.”

When you can trot Omar Infante out every day in the midst of a -1.0 fWAR campaign, you have to do it.

Coleman punched his ticket back to Omaha in three short weeks of virtually nonexistent yet memorably bad playing time, but Colón remained in Omaha until rosters expanded in September. Emerging from nearly two months in stasis while locked in a bathroom somewhere in the bowels of the K, he slashed a palatable .281/.353/.344 with a .322 wOBA and 91 wRC+, marks that would hardly inspire volumes of poetry to be written in his name but that looked a damn sight better than what the entrenched second baseman in Kansas City was doing.

Unfortunately for Colón (at least if one were concerned with his receiving playing time at the major-league level), Alex Gordon’s return from the disabled list coincided exactly with September’s expanded rosters. Infante’s 2015 reign of terror at the keystone was effectively over once the calendar turned over, registering a mere 18 plate appearances over the subsequent 18 days before finally going to the disabled list with bone chips in his elbow that—despite being an issue possibly requiring surgery IN MARCH—were not surgically addressed until November.

Colón sat for the bulk of the time Infante was still on the active roster, but once Infante departed for the disabled list, the rookie got to see something that resembled semi-regular playing time. In 33 September plate appearances—the bulk of which were accrued over the final 15 games of the season—Colón slashed .414/.485/.448, bolstered by a nice but wildly unsustainable .500 BABIP.

Watching from the bench as the Royals came back from the dead against the Houston Astros in the American League Division Series, then put away the Toronto Blue Jays in six in the American League Championship Series, and finally jumped up 3-1 against the New York Mets in the World Series, Christian Colón finally got to play in a baseball game in the late innings of Game 5 of the World Series.

Pinch-hitting for reliever Luke Hochevar in a National League park in the top of the 12th of a 2-2 game, Colón stepped into the batter’s box for the first time in 28 days. Jarrod Dyson, pinch-running for Salvador Pérez, stood on third base after stealing second and advancing to third on an Alex Gordon sacrifice.

Facing Addison Reed, Colon did this:

The Royals poured it on after Colón’s go-ahead single, tacking on four more devilish runs, but once again, the Cal State - Fullerton alum came to the dish in extras in a post-season game and delivered. While not exactly validating his having been taken fourth overall in the 2010 draft, Colón put his team up in a decisive post-season game while the seventh pick of that draft watched in horror from the opposing dugout after he insisted upon staying in to finish off the Royals in a 2-0 game in the ninth only to let that lead get away.

After delivering the game-winning RBI, Colon had the following to say:

Fresh off offseason surgery to remove the bone chips in his elbow, Omar Infante entered the 2016 season as the everyday second baseman for Ned Yost’s Royals. As if never having undergone surgery in the first place, Infante continued his assault on well played baseball, slashing .239/.279/.321 with a .260 wOBA and 56 wRC+ in 39 games and 149 plate appearances.

Once again, Colón lived life like Tantalus, the sustenance and thirst-quenching properties of being on the dirt so close yet so far away. After nearly starving to death while amassing just 15 plate appearances in the month of April, Mike Moustakas’s thumb injury that was eventually determined to be a fracture opened up a modest opportunity for Colón to get some playing time. Colón got to play in four straight games at third base before the Royals got X-rays back confirming Moustakas’s need to go to the disabled list. Cheslor Cuthbert came up, but Colón started the next two games at second to bring his consecutive starts total to a whopping six. Colon played semi-regularly over the next week. His May totals on May 18 were 11 games, nine of them starts, with 33 plate appearances where he slashed .258/.303/.290 to bring his season line to that point to a .250/.313/.295 slash with a .275 wOBA and 65 wRC+.

On May 18, Whit Merrifield was promoted from Omaha, and Colón was optioned, burning his final team option after being added to the 40-man roster after the 2013 season. Merrifield got the chance to do what Colón had never done, play regularly at the major-league level. Given the chance to come in warm after starting the season in Omaha, Merrifield played in 53 of the next 57 games, 49 of those being starts. Merrifield hit initially, slashing .339/.356/.496 in his first month before faltering and earning his own demotion to Omaha on July 24.

When the Royals finally cut bait with Omar Infante on June 15, Colón had been back with the Royals for five days. Aside from three days spent in Omaha at the beginning of September, Colón spent June 10 through the end of the season in Kansas City. Over the final 102 games of what would quickly prove to be a lost season for both the Royals and the 2010 first-round draft pick, Colón saw his name in the starting lineup just 26 times, entering in the late innings on another 12 occasions. With this sporadic playing time, he managed just a .223/.286/.291 slash, whimpering to the 2016 finish line with a woeful .231/.294/.293 triple-slash working out to a .264 wOBA and 58 wRC+, finishing the season at 0.0 fWAR and 0.6 rWAR, thanks almost entirely to his defensive contributions, despite what whispers from the organization would have one believe.

Highly touted prospect Raúl Mondesí’s midseason promotion to Kansas City muddied the waters more, and it became increasingly uncertain as to from whence playing time for Christian Colón might come.

The offseason came and tragedy befell the team. Colón and teammate Danny Duffy went out to the K to mourn with Royals fans.

Spring Training happened, and despite prudence and a Spring Training résumé built upon bunt hits and facing minor-league arms suggesting that Raúl Mondesí should start the season in the minors, Mondesí was named the Opening Day starter at the keystone. Out of options, Colón went right back to his seldom-used utility infielder role, sitting so far down the bench that Ned Yost needed the Hubble telescope to see him. As the entirety of the world not employed by the Royals’ organization expected, Mondesí played his way to the minors quickly, but again Yost and Moore fingered Merrifield to man second.

Colón was given a whopping 19 plate appearances, accrued in seven random-ass games spread out from Opening Day to May 10. During this same time, Merrifield, Colon’s usurper, slashed .197/.250/.318 with a .249 wOBA and 52 wRC+, playing exactly replacement-level ball (0.0 fWAR) through his first 73 plate appearances. With Merrifield emphatically asserting his dominance over Colón [ed. he wrote whilst drowning in sarcasm], the writing was on the wall. On May 10, 2017, the Royals designated the former fourth-pick overall for assignment, wiping him from the 40-man roster and seemingly sending him packing for other hopefully greener pastures.

Upon his designation for assignment, Colón had the following to say to the fans of Kansas City:

Upon getting the news that Colón had been DFA’d, teammate/friend/righteous dude Danny Duffy took to Instagram to bid his pal adieu.

This week, Colon was claimed off waivers by the Marlins. Never given an opportunity to get anything resembling the playing time one would assume a first-round pick who actually made it to the majors would have gotten—especially when Omar Infante’s implosion pretty much necessitated the granting of such a chance—it is hard to view the Royal career of Christian Colón as anything much more favorably than incomplete.

Shouldering the burden of having been taken fourth overall, Colón certainly did not perform to the arguably unfair expectations to which such players are held. Though making it to the majors at all is a success story for the inexact pseudoscience that is the MLB Draft, Colón did not distinguish himself as much more than a guy who might be able to put up a league-average season if EVERYTHING broke right. As happened to be the case, Colón never really got a shot to prove anything. He once started ten straight games and did pretty well in that stretch. Other than a couple six-start streaks, Christian Colón was left to fend for scraps over the course of his four partial seasons in Kansas City.

Sometimes life just don’t make sense. With Ned Yost’s curious but apparent disdain for Colón, trying to reconcile Colón’s development and playing time with his draft status definitely don’t make sense. That’s what Ned do.