When the topic of expensive, multi-year contracts for closers comes up, Heath Bell will almost certainly be pointed to as a cautionary tale. Actually, he’s been a warning against long-term investments in relievers since signing a three-year, $27 million contract with the Miami Marlins before the 2012 season.
Bell was designated for assignment by the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday, reaching the bottom floor of a steep three-year drop for the 36-year-old reliever. In 13 appearances, he compiled a 7.27 ERA with 16 runs (14 earned) and 24 hits allowed in 17.1 innings. Bell’s rate of 6.2 strikeouts per nine innings was the lowest of his 11-year MLB career, while his 4.2 walks per nine was the highest.
The Rays have 10 days during which to trade or release Bell. If he passes through waivers, Bell would probably be assigned to Triple-A Durham, but he can refuse the assignment and become a free agent. Either way, he’ll still get his $9 million salary for this season. (The Rays are on the hook for $5.5 million of that figure, with $4 million to be paid off by the Marlins.)
Perhaps some team will still take a chance on Bell, since he’ll come cheaply. Any club that signed Bell after clearing waivers would only be obligated to pay a prorated amount of the major league minimum salary. But even though teams are always looking for relievers, Bell’s poor performance and advanced age don’t bode well for future employment in the big leagues.
If Bell couldn’t turn himself around in Tampa Bay, which has been a haven for reliever reclamation projects in recent seasons, it’s difficult to see where he might get another chance for a revival. The Rays and their fans surely hoped Bell would rediscover his pitching touch as Grant Balfour, Joaquin Benoit, Dan Wheeler, Joel Peralta and Fernando Rodney had in recent seasons.
Instead, Bell was basically a more expensive version of Kyle Farnsworth. Actually, that’s not fair to Farnsworth. Bell was much worse and the team deemed him beyond saving.
However, there was reason for optimism after the Rays acquired Bell from the Diamondbacks during the offseason. Besides Tampa Bay’s reputation for rehabilitating relievers, Bell pitched relatively well at times.
In May, he was actually Arizona’s closer while J.J. Putz was injured, notching eight saves with a 3.38 ERA and 10 strikeouts in 10.2 innings. But a terrible June knocked him out of that role. During the second half, he posted a 3.56 ERA with 33 strikeouts and five walks in 30.1 innings. Although a deeper look shows that Bell was bad in August, allowing nine runs and 17 hits in 15.1 innings. He was still striking out batters, racking up 16 Ks. Yet overall, he was just too inconsistent to be considered reliable.
The real problem is that the Marlins never should’ve signed him to that big free agent deal to begin with.
In his final season with the Padres, Bell’s strikeout rate dropped dramatically, from 11.1 per nine innings in 2010 to 7.3. It was a curious development, considering that none of Bell’s other numbers declined so noticeably. According to FanGraphs’ Pitch F/X, there was virtually no difference in his velocity from 2010 to 2011. However, Bell did adopt a sinker in 2011 and used his fastball far less often, likely because he was having difficulty throwing it for strikes. Still, that doesn’t project as a closer worth $9 million per season.
But as the saying goes, all it takes is one team to make a crazy offer. The Marlins had Leo Nunez on their roster, who saved 36 games yet had a 4.06 ERA. But toward the end of the season, it was discovered that Nunez had taken the identity of his best friend, who was a year younger, before signing a contract out of the Dominican Republic. Juan Carlos Oviedo was suspended by the team and placed on MLB’s restricted list. An inability to get a visa kept Oviedo in his home country. That left the Marlins with a need for a closer.
Miami probably would have signed Bell anyway, regardless of what happened with Oviedo. Bell appeared to be an upgrade, and Oviedo could be moved to a setup role. But having that greater need created by Oviedo’s identity fraud (he was eventually suspended for eight weeks by MLB) may have compelled the Marlins to overpay for a free agent closer.
Bell was a disaster in Miami from the start, blowing three saves in April while allowing 10 runs (eight earned) and eight walks in just 6.2 innings. He also struck out only five batters. Marlins manager Carlos Guillen stuck with Bell through May (perhaps in part because of how much he was being paid), but eventually had no choice but to replace him at closer. By the second half of the season, Bell had lost his job to Steve Cishek and wasn’t getting it back.
Performance aside, Bell also firebombed any and all bridges with Guillen (and surely, the Marlins) by criticizing his manager on local sports talk radio toward the end of the season. Bell said it was “hard to respect” Guillen because the skipper hadn’t been honest with him about his situation and wouldn’t talk to him about it face-to-face. Less than a month later, the reliever was traded to the Diamondbacks. If the deal was a surprise, it was largely because the Marlins found a team willing to take on a significant portion of Bell’s salary.
But for Bell, it was just the end of the first act in the script of his ignominous decline. The end of the story’s third act apparently occurred when the Rays gave up on him Sunday. Any chances at writing a redemption tale are probably finished too.