Two weeks ago, it was reported that the Marlins were planning to move on without Juan Oviedo (the closer formerly known as Leo Nunez). Last night, they followed through on that plan by agreeing in principle to a three-year deal (with an option for a fourth year) with free-agent reliever Heath Bell, using him to replace Oviedo, who they mean to non-tender.
Bell’s 2011 season has been the subject of much scrutiny. On the one hand, Bell is the only pitcher in baseball to save 40 or more games in each of the past three seasons. On the other hand, Bell’s K/9 dropped precipitously last season. His walk rate dropped in accordance, but it didn’t drop down to a career-low level or anything — he had better control in the first four years of his career.
Looking at the past three seasons, we can see that while Bell’s 9.61 K/9 is still good, it’s hardly elite — of the 17 relievers on our free-agent leaderboard with at least 10 saves over the past three seasons, Bell’s mark is tied for 10th. And while Bell’s K rate may bounce back slightly, as he didn’t lose any velocity — if anything, his velocity got better as the season progressed — it may not get back to those elite levels as long as he continues throwing the sinker he introduced last year, since it generated a below-average swinging-strike percentage.
With fewer strikeouts came reduced effectiveness — Bell’s FIP- was 92, and his xFIP- was 95, with the latter mark the worst of his career. That xFIP- tied for 69th among qualified relievers with Blake Hawksworth, David Hernandez, Mitchell Boggs and Rafael Perez — four relievers whose combined salary will be barely one-third that of Bell’s next season.
Whatever ills Bell had were covered up by the Padres’ defense. The Padres’ outfield UZR/150 of 5.8 was fifth-best in the game, and their outfield DRS of 22 was fourth. The infield played nearly as well, as the infield (excepting pitcher and catcher) DRS of 8 ranked eighth overall. The Marlins on the other hand, were not as good. Mike Stanton played well, and if the Fish turn the center-field car keys over to Bryan Petersen they could have plus defenders at two outfield spots, but left field is another story altogether. I don’t know if Carson has done a “nickname seeks player” post yet for “lumbering,” but lumbering Logan Morrison not only has a good ring to it, but given his defense in left, it’s also apt. In the infield, they could be better than last year if Matt Dominguez plays frequently, but there will still be a weak link in Hanley Ramirez.
There’s also the matter of Bell leaving Petco Park. As Dave Cameron pointed out in the article linked above, Bell has been more susceptible to the home run ball outside of Petco. While he certainly could have picked worse ballparks to go to, the new Marlins ballpark — assuming it plays similar to Sun Life Stadium — is still a downgrade for him. According to the Bill James Handbook 2012, 12 percent more home runs were hit at Sun Life over the past three seasons than in Petco — 29 percent more by left-handed hitters. Not a good sign.
Another factor here is that the Marlins bullpen wasn’t in dire straits. The Marlins’ bullpen was actually a strength last season — their xFIP ranked eighth as a group, their FIP seventh. And truth be told, Oviedo may have been the weak link. Excluding Oviedo, the Marlins return eight relievers who threw at least 20 innings last year, and six of them — Randy Choate, Steve Cishek, Edward Mujica, Burke Badenhop, Jose Ceda and Mike Dunn — had a league-average xFIP or better. A seventh, Ryan Webb, was close to average. All seven were better than Oviedo, who has really only had one good season in his career. Choosing to non-tender him, especially given his unknown legal situation and immigration/visa status, is the right move. But while noting that reliever performance can fluctuate wildly from year-to-year, you could make the case that simply non-tendering Oviedo and slotting in Mujica as the closer would have been all the upgrade that was necessary. If the Marlins felt the need to do something, they could have gotten in on someone like Octavio Dotel for much less money.
Heath Bell saved 43 games last year, is a three-time All-Star and still chucks 94-mph cheese. As far as making a splash goes, you could do worse — but not much worse. Bell has only been worth $9 million in just three of his seven full seasons, may not be as good outside of Petco Park, and if new manager Ozzie Guillen insists on playing Emilio Bonifacio — or, as he may soon be known, the Hispanic Juan Pierre — he won’t have as good a defense behind him. Big-ticket relievers face a taller task to become good investments in general, and that goes double in an offseason that has seen the free-agent market for relievers explode despite the litany of good relievers available. Finally, Bell doesn’t necessarily fit a need for the Marlins, who already had a good bullpen. Committing to Bell doesn’t necessarily preclude them from making additional splashes on guys like Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and/or C.J. Wilson — the Marlins seem ready to set a payroll record this winter — but just because you can buy something doesn’t mean you should.
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