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Another Hypothetical Heath Bell Deal

The Miami Marlins grand experiment hasn’t worked this year, leading to the trades of Hanley Ramirez, Anibal Sanchez, Omar Infante and Randy Choate before the non-waiver trade deadline. In a perfect world, they wouldn’t have had to trade those players, because they would still be fighting for a playoff spot at this point in the season. But it hasn’t been a perfect world for the Marlins, and one of the major imperfections is the performance of high-priced reliever Heath Bell.

Signed to a lucrative three-year deal this offseason, Bell was supposed to help transform the Marlins into legitimate championship contenders. He has, however, been quite bad, losing the confidence of his manager and the closer role itself, and there haven’t been any signs of him turning things around.

The Marlins have already unloaded a number of valuable assets, but have had trouble finding a suitor for Bell. That’s what tends to happen with relievers who make a lot of money despite being shells of their former selves. Bell was already linked to the Red Sox in a rumor that had him and Hanley heading to Boston in exchange for Carl Crawford. The deal never materialized, but it was a very interesting thought experiment, as the salaries getting swapped were similar and the move represented a change-of-scenery challenge for those involved.

According to a recent Ken Rosenthal report, the Marlins were engaged in another change-of-scenery challenge trade involving Bell this week. This time, they spoke to the Mets about trading Bell and catcher John Buck for Jason Bay. No formal deal was proposed and the idea didn’t truly gain traction, but it again represented an interesting idea. Considering that no other team is going to relieve the Marlins of Bell’s salary, or the Mets of Bay’s, this is a deal worth revisiting before the waiver deadline.

The mechanics of the deal make sense for both sides. Bell is owed approximately $2 million this season, and $9 million in each of the next two seasons. He has a $9 million option in 2015 contingent upon finishing 55 games the year before, or 100 games over 2013-14. Buck will also make around $2 million over the rest of the season, and makes $6 million next year before hitting free agency. Bay has around $5.4 million remaining on his 2012 contract, and is set to make $16 million next year. He has a $17 million club option ($3 million buyout) that is guaranteed if he tallies 600 PAs in 2013 or 500 PAs in both 2012-13. But forget the options, because they won’t trigger and aren’t getting exercised.

Bay has only logged 137 PAs this season, and it’s unlikely that Bell will finish all of those games if he continues to pitch this poorly. It’s essentially a Catch-22 for both players: if they were playing well, they would rack up the PAs and GFs, making it far more likely that the options trigger. However, if they were performing well to that extent, neither team would look to make this type of swap. The whole notion of a change-of-scenery deal is that the players switching teams might need a fresh start to get their respective grooves back.

In terms of money changing hands, if the deal went down today, the Marlins would trade away $4 million in 2012 salary and bring back $5.4 million. Next season, the Marlins would have traded away $15 million and acquired $16 million. In 2014, the Mets would pay Bell’s $9 million salary while Bay would be removed from the Marlins books save for the $3 million buyout.

Overall, the Marlins save more money, as the Mets would remain on the hook for Bell’s 2014 salary after Bay’s and Buck’s contracts expire. However, in removing Bay in this hypothetical deal, and treating the money as a sunk cost, the Mets would potentially have a decent reliever in Bell and a backup catcher with power in Buck, if everything works out. Plus, they would remove Bay from the lineup permanently, which enables them to use an actual productive player in left field moving forward.

Since the money is virtually the same over 2012-13, it seemingly makes plenty of sense for the Mets to pursue such a move. Buck has struggled this season but has been a league average player over the previous two seasons. And, for all we know, Bell is a headcase who could view a trade as the fresh start he needed to right the ship. Both he and Buck have more potential to improve the Mets than does Bay.

From the Marlins point of view, this move would be about shedding long-term payroll and creating the perception of starting over, as they save $4-5 million in 2014. However, Bay has been so bad and inconsistent in both health and performance over the last three seasons that it’s unlikely he would do much of anything. In pursuing this move, the Marlins would be clearly valuing the long-term payroll relief over potential returned production.

Both teams are going to pay unproductive players similar amounts of money over the next couple of seasons. There are potential benefits for both sides here, with the Mets bringing in relatively higher upside players while the Marlins garner some salary relief. As all three players are likely to pass through waivers, don’t be surprised if this picks up steam over the next few weeks.