BY David Villavicencio
The Miami Marlins have landed their first marquee free agent.
According to Jayson Stark, the Marlins agreed to a three-year deal worth $27 million with closer Heath Bell. Ken Rosenthal reports there is a vesting option for a fourth year worth $9 million. The three-time All-Star is expected to take a physical Friday.
Bell was considered one of the top free agent closers available this off-season after saving over 40 games in each of the past three seasons with the Padres. The right-hander went 3-4 with a 2.44 ERA while saving 43 games and striking out 51 over 62 2/3 innings in 2011.
On the surface, the Bell signing seems like a good one. It fills a need and appears to be a major upgrade over Juan Carlos Oviedo. But if you look deeper you will find a lot of concerns with the Marlins newest addition.
Age: Bell Just turned 34 at the conclusion of this season. This new contract has the Marlins on the hook for $9 million a year until Bell is 37. That is typically not the prime years of any player’s career. Mariano Rivera is the rare exception of a closer pitching at an elite level so late in his career and he is the best closer in the history of the game. Heath Bell is not on that level.
Ballpark: Bell found success in San Diego’s spacious PETCO Park. Before heading west, he was a pretty bad reliever with the Mets, posting ERAs of 5.59 and 5.11 in 2005 and 2006, respectively.
It seemed like everything turned around for Bell when he joined the Padres. He never posted an ERA higher than 3.58 in his five years there and has and ERA below 3.00 in four of his five seasons in San Diego. There is no telling how the new Marlins ballpark will play but it certainly will not be as pitcher-friendly as PETCO Park.
Budgeting: The Marlins are committed to increasing payroll and building a better ballclub but is this the best way to spend their funds? Coming into the off-season, the Marlins had needs in the starting rotation and question marks surrounding third base, center field, closer and their bench.
Adding Bell solidifies the closer spot but is adding a top closer the main priority for the Marlins? The team had hovered around .500 from 2008-2010 before their disastrous showing in 2011. Most people know the Marlins are not as bad as their 2011 record but they are not more than a .500 team either. As a team with so many needs to address, it may not be wise to allocate so much money to a player whose main job is to close out wins. If you were a team like the Cardinals, I could understand the move because they have deep starting pitching, a potent lineup and an unreliable closer but the Marlins have issues that need addressing throughout the roster. With a free agent market flooded with potential closers, they may have been better off signing someone else for a few million less annually and using the money they saved to improve some of their other holes.
Diminishing statistics/performance: Bell’s numbers have dropped of dramatically lately. He struck out just 51 batters last season after striking out 86 the year before. Bell had struck out 70 or more batters every year since 2007 before last year. The major drop is strikeouts is a big concern. Closers that need to pitch to contact are only as good as their defense. They’re also not worth a huge payday because they are not the type of pitcher to come in and shut down an offense by themselves.
In fact, check out some alarming numbers from Bell’s 2011 campaign
- He saw his strikeout rate decline to a career worst 7.32 K/9 (11.06 K.9 in 2010) His strikeout decline was not an aberration, as his swinging strike rate decreased from 10.6 per nine innings in 2010 to 8.3 per nine innings this past season.
- His dramatic drop in strikeouts did not come from a decrease in velocity. His average fastball speed of 94 miles per hour in 2011 was identical to 2010. It actually can be attributed to an inability to get opposing hitters to swing and miss at his curveball. He had a swinging strike rate of 18.2 percent with the pitch in 2010 compared to a 10.3 percent rate in 2011.
- His 2.44 ERA last season was helped by his .261 BABIP, which was extremely low, especially considering his 21.3 percent line drive rate. Additionally, he has been able to keep his home run rate down, helped by the fact he has pitched in PETCO Park for the last five seasons.
Marlins fans will argue that they have had enough of Juan Carlos Oviedo and his 25 career blown saves and that is understandable. But Bell has actually blown 26 saves in his career so it is not like they are picking up someone who will be lights out when he enters a game in the ninth inning.
Adding Bell does a lot for the Marlins. It brings in an established closer with a track record of success and adds a marquee name in an off-season focused on making significant improvements to the roster.
But Bell’s signing does not come without some big concerns. The Marlins and their fans may not know it yet but they could be regretting this contract a year from now.