The Miami Marlins vowed to be active in this year’s free agent market, with everyone from Albert Pujols to Jose Reyes to C.J. Wilson being tied to the team. Instead of those three highly coveted free agents, the first big move they make this offseason turns out to be a closer, as they signed former Padre fireman Heath Bell to a three year, $27 million. The signing was first reported by ESPN’s Jayson Stark.
Now, much has been made about whether or not closers should be treated to multi-year, high paying deals (for instance here and here for words from myself and Fearless Leader) but more importantly, this is the first step the Marlins were hoping to make to make themselves relevant in a free agency market that they have rarely been a part of before.
But did the Marlins make the right move? Their bullpen wasn’t exactly fantastic last year, with The Man Formerly Known as Leo Nuñez’s 36 saves being about the only thing that stands out, but as it’s been pointed out numerous times before, big money contracts just don’t work out for relievers a great majority of the time. And a look at Bell’s numbers don’t exactly paint the prettiest picture.
Bell was with the Padres for five seasons after coming over from the Mets, and it’s interesting to see how he’s performed at Petco. Here’s a look at some rate stats that show you Bell’s rise and subsequent fall in 2011:
Home Run Rate:
What’s most interesting about Bell’s 2011 season is that he had the lowest batting average on balls in play (.261) as a Padre since his first year with the team in 2007, and with the strikeout rate going down along with his home rate ticking back up from his unsustainable rate in 2010, Bell’s FIP (3.23) was his highest since 2008.
Now what does this tell us about Bell? It’s what normally is told when it comes to relievers: They are fickle, fickle beings that can fluctuate from year to year. His 2010 was remarkable, including an 81.8% strand rate and a .322 BABIP and he STILL had the best season of his career, yet the next season saw him come back to Earth a little bit and take a tick down in other areas.
Of course, this brings up the contract. By Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement, he went from 2 to 2.4 to 0.5 from 2009-11, taking into account the rate stats above as a major reason for his dip in 2011. By B-R Wins Above Replacement over that same timeframe, Bell didn’t take too much of a dip in 2011, going from 2.1 to 2.4 to 1.7. If we take into account that a win above replacement costs about $5 million, his contract is right about at the value he has been worth the last few seasons. However, as has been talked about before, with relievers being so easy to come by, the most value can be found in the bullpen from undervalued arms that perform at a high level. In the Marlins’ own bullpen in 2011, Steve Cishek was worth a win above replacement level at pre-arbitration level prices, outperforming Bell’s $7 million contract by a hefty amount for about 14 times less.
This also brings into account what exactly the Marlins were thinking when they brought in the aforementioned Pujols, Reyes and Wilson. If they’re willing to give Heath Bell $9 million per year to close, is there a reason they couldn’t take that money and put it towards a truly hefty contract for a player that truly had a chance to pay off? Wilson isn’t an ace-level pitcher, but considering how hard it is to find good starting pitching in the open market, a lack of strong arms coming up through the Miami system and what we know about relievers being found for less than nothing, overspending to get Wilson to pitch in Miami would have been a much better move, even if it wasn’t as heralded compared to what other teams would have paid for him.
On top of that, the Marlins still haven’t become the top suitor for Yoennis Cespedes, the powerful Cuban prospect that has scouts buzzing due to his raw potential and his ability to roam center field (not to mention his awesome YouTube video) a spot that the Marlins need to improve at big time. With Miami being the Cuban-American hotbed that it is, making Cespedes the first big signing of the free agency period could have set the stage for a grand transition in a new direction for the franchise.
Instead, the signing of Bell means anywhere from 10-15% of the budget the Marlins set up for themselves for the 2012 season has been put towards perhaps the most volatile of all spots on the 25-man roster, and while Bell was an attractive name for the Marlins, they should have spent their money elsewhere.