The Giants claimed Bell, most likely to bolster their bullpen given the injuries to Brian Wilson and Sergio Romo. The waiver claim could have also been submitted to block the Diamondbacks from acquiring Bell. The Yankees claimed Pena, even though Mark Teixeira plays virtually every inning at first base and Jorge Posada has performed well against righties this season with a .359 wOBA.
But given the Yankees place in the standings and the lack of need for the Red Sox, the claim on Pena probably wasn’t used as a blocking mechanism.
Both players should have been dealt back at the trade deadline, when teams could unilaterally work with one another. Both Bell and Pena might not represent massive improvements to anyone with only a month remaining in the season, but they could have impacted the playoff picture if traded in mid-July, when more teams were seemingly in the race. Let’s take a look at both situations.
Signed to a one year deal worth $10 million, Pena is owed $5 million in deferred compensation by the Cubs, whether or not they traded him throughout the season. His numbers are decent but nothing to write home about. A first baseman hitting .223/.341/.449 on the season, and with a .372 wOBA against righties, doesn’t do a whole lot for teams on either an overall or platoon basis.
This appears to be who Pena is right now: he won’t have much success on balls in play, but will walk a ton, whiff a ton, and hit 25-30 home runs. However, his slugging percentage will be dragged down given the poor batting average.
For teams without a clear first baseman, or in need of a platoon at the position, he made a lot of sense. Though his .372 wOBA in the advantageous split isn’t otherworldly — Pena doesn’t even crack the first page of our ‘vs. R’ leaderboard split among guys with 200+ plate appearances — there were certainly teams where the relative value of that production could have made a big difference. The Pirates were one of those teams.
When they were in the thick of the playoff picture, Pena made more sense than Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick, and it wasn’t like committing to Pena would have had a detrimental impact on their future plans. The argument could be made that the cost of Pena would have outweighed his production, especially relative to the cost and production of Lee, but the former AL home run king was a better bet to help the Buccos at the time.
The Diamondbacks were another team that could have used Pena’s services. Sure, they seem committed to Paul Goldschmidt now, but in the middle of July they were still unsure who would play first base each night.
The Indians could have gotten into the mix as well, but the bottom line was that it was foolish for the Cubs to hold onto Pena, when one of the biggest pros to signing him in the first place was the chance to move him at the deadline.
He could conceivably return to the Cubs next season, but unless they are convinced that he is the answer at first base, and that in being traded he would vow to never return to the Windy City, the season-long reluctance to trade him is particularly baffling.
The situation with Heath Bell is a bit different, because his relationship with the Padres is causing mass confusion. Bell has clearly expressed an interest in signing with his employer when he reaches free agency, but the Padres appear to change their mind every other week on the prospects of bringing him back. At first it seemed like he would be traded to the Rangers at the end of July, with initial reports even mistakenly claiming he, not Mike Adams, was dealt. The deadline passed and he stayed in San Diego, and rumors began to surface that the Padres would sign him to an extension.
Fast-forward to this week and his being placed on waivers again suggested that the Padres would be willing to move him for the right price. In their case, ‘the right price’ referred to a return that would exceed the value of the compensatory draft picks they could receive if Bell declined arbitration and signed elsewhere. Of course, there is plenty of risk involved there. According to Ken Rosenthal, Bell has stated he would accept arbitration, a tidbit the Padres might not have known back when the trade deadline was approaching. In this scenario, they would obviously need to lower their asking price in trade talks, as their leverage would be shot, and only a month remains anyway.
What muddies the waters here is the idea that the Padres couldn’t just re-sign Bell in the offseason even if they traded him this season. Bell seems cerebral enough to grasp that, by trading him now, and fully intending to re-sign him in the offseason, the Padres would be bringing him back into an even better situation. He would get a month-long vacation to contentionville and would end up where he wanted to be after the season.
Perhaps Bell would enjoy his time in San Francisco — or other destinations back at the deadline — so much that San Diego would lose its appeal, but it seems more likely that he would treat the situation like John McDonald. The new Diamondbacks shortstop clearly understands what happened, and expressed his intent on returning to the Blue Jays.
Holding onto Pena makes little sense for the Cubs, as he simply isn’t a worthwhile enough player to bend over backwards to keep in the organization for the longhaul. In Bell’s case, the Padres likely lost their game of chicken, expecting to receive draft pick compensation on the heels of a declined arbitration offer. Being “stuck” with a top-notch closer and a decent first baseman aren’t the worst ends to their respective stories, but both situations illustrate the risk of holding onto valuable yet extraneous assets too long.
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