Marlins Reel In Heath Bell

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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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for the Boston Globe. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.


47 Responses to “Marlins Reel In Heath Bell”

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  1. Colin says:

    I love hearing about Juan Oviedo, that story just makes me smile and shake my head for some reason.

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  2. Robbie G. says:

    When most teams sign free agents, there is at least the appearance that the team is making a good faith effort to actually make the team better. The Marlins’ offseason thus far has the appearance of nothing more than a P.R. campaign to sell tickets. It could not really be more transparent. Undoubtably, when other teams sign free agents and spend money, there are some P.R. motives but at least it’s not completely transparent. It appears that the Marlins sought to create the impression that it was gunning for the likes of Albert Pujols and Jose Reyes, that at no point did the Marlins ever seriously consider ponying up $100+ mil for such superstar players, and that the Marlins want to avoid the sort of scrutiny and backlash that would inevitably occur in the event that the Marlins spent no money at all this offseason. Which explains this signing, in my mind.

    If the Marlins were genuinely interested in signing an Albert Pujols or a Jose Reyes, wouldn’t you first use your cash to sign such a superstar player? Wouldn’t you only spend $27 mil on the likes of Heath Bell after swinging and missing on a Pujols or a Reyes? As a general rule, the big names get signed first and the remaining free agents are fighting for leftovers.

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    • Tom says:

      Just to play devil’s advocate… maybe it shows the big guys that the team IS going to spend money and not simply sign one superstar to put fans in the seats where that player will end up as a one man show.

      (that said, not sure sinking that money into a closer is the right way to go about that….)

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  3. Bill says:

    He should have just legally changed his name to Leo Nunez. I don’t know how to pronounce his real name. (Oh vee ay doh?). Plus I can’t expect to trade him off my keeper team if nobody knows who the hell he is. The horribly inept U.S. immigration service did this just to spite me.

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  4. Jonny's Bananas says:

    This move cements the Marlins as the worst organization in baseball. Outside of the Beckett and Lowell for Hanley and Sanchez trade, this organization has made few to none good moves since 2003. Incidentally, the one thing that this managerial group HAD done well in the past was signing washed up relievers and rejuvenating their careers (Joe Borowski, Armando Benitez, Todd Jones, etc.). You would think that given their success with this strategy they would realize the inherent volatility in relief pitcher signings and avoid making such expensive moves going forward. Instead, in the last calendar year they have managed to trade two 3+ WAR players for relief pitchers and a utility man, and then decide to make the third highest paid player on the team a relief pitcher.

    After this contract (ineffectiveness) and the Reyes contracts (injury) inevitably blow up, this team will be mired in last place in the NL East for the foreseeable future, regardless of how good Mike Stanton is.

    I should have come to expect this when I heard David Samson do a radio interview where he used pitcher wins as his metric for deciding which pitchers would be good investments.

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    • Husker says:

      While this signing almost certainly will not turn out well, it is hardly the apocalyptic event you make it out to be.
      Overpaying a few million for a reliever who is probably an average to mediocre player hardly supports your conclusion that the Marlins have the worst management in baseball.
      Wait until you see my rant when the Giants sign Alex Gonzalez for $12M for 2 years or thereabouts.

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      • Jonny's Bananas says:

        No doubt that this is not the end of the world and not the worst signing imaginable, but it is just a tough pill to swallow that when your team FINALLY decides to spend money on someone, that someone turns out to be a 34 year old closer with questionable peripherals and home/road splits.

        Also, remember, this is the same managerial group whose best 1st round pick over the last 10 years has been Jeremy Hermida and traded Miguel Cabrera for Edward Mujica, Ryan Webb and Burke Badenhop.

        Actually, why doesn’t FG run a series on the worst (and maybe even best) management teams over the last 5-10 years? That would be pretty interesting.

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    • Orlando Crespo says:

      I don’t know if you realized it buddy, but its December 2nd. The winter meetings haven’t began.

      I wouldn’t be so quick to judge a management’s offseason because of signing a closer that has had 40 saves in the past 3 years BEFORE the Winter Meetings. At least it was 4 years/50 mill for Papelbon.

      And also what your saying is you believe the marlins signing Jose Reyes would be a bad move? What are you thinking?

      Its difficult to be a Marlins fan. We’ve had to go through endless years of salary dumping and mediocrity, but I honestly believe Loria Beinfest and Hill are in there to win it, not just for business. Sure there are some in the organization that might be, but I like the Heath Bell signing.

      Let me give you an example. When the mets signed Pedro Martinez it was a horrible contract, didn’t live up to it at all. But it drove Carlos Delgado to come and it built a mentality in that franchise that they’re willing to spend. Lets say Heath Bell doesn’t live up to the deal, (which btw is not a for sure thing) at least it shows to free agents that the marlins are serious and ready to spend to win. Miami is an excellent destination, the weather, a new ballpark, a likeable manager, no state income tax. I believe the Marlins can become a serious spending franchise.

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    • Marver says:

      I believe the majority of Padres fans would GLADLY trade the entire Padres organization for the entire Marlins organization, ownership/management included.

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      • PadresFuture says:

        Not the current one. If you have not noticed, the Padres have quietly assembled a top 3 minor league system and have a solid young core of players like Headley, Hundley, Maybin, Latos, Luebke, and Stauffer. The future is bright in SD.

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      • Luke says:

        No thanks. Not a chance!

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      • Marver says:

        The Padres have a dearth of low-upside minor league talent without the capability to sign top-of-the-line talent to supplement it. I agree, the minor league system is solid (and better than at any point I can recall in Padres history), but small market teams — as the Padres have painted themselves — enjoy success when a high-upside offensive talent succeeds, not by having a handful of 3-5s, four line-drive hitting third-basemen, and Mike Cameron re-encarnate.

        The Marlins roster is head-and-shoulders above the Padres — for crying out loud, Mike Stanton hit more homeruns in May last year than anyone currently on the Padres roster hit all of last season — and I wouldn’t bet against Christian Yelich having a better MLB career than whichever Padres hitting prospect you choose.

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  5. Greg says:

    One could make a compelling argument that a team should never invest significantly in any short reliever. Starting pitchers are risky investments, and closers and other short relievers are by and large failed starters. The risks of injury or underperformance can always be justified as a deterent. And Heath Bell is 34 years old, which heightens the risks.

    But I don’t think the metrics predict a decline. Heath Bell didn’t surrender a home run until after the All Star break, which is precisely the time when Bell began dealing with almost daily questions from the media regarding trade rumors. Bell gave up four homers in the second half, two of which came in a blown save in September at Chase Field, when Chris Young and Lyle Overbay went back-to-back in the 9th inning to tie the game. On August 8, Bell had his worst outing of the season when he gave up 4 hits and 3 runs in one-third of an inning on the road against the Mets. Those two outings on the road, one in a hitter’s paradise, and one in a pitcher friendly park (Petco Park was actually more homer friendly than CitiField), did significant damage to his road FIP splits. That’s the problem with using metrics to evaluate short relievers. One or two bad outings can make them look a lot worse than they really were.

    Is it possible that the distractions involving the trade rumors, and the disappointment when Bell wasn’t traded to a contender, caused Bell to lose a bit of concentration and focus down the stretch? Or did he simply throw a handful of bad pitches that hitters hammered in a couple of outings? I suspect the latter, because Bell finished the season strong and other than a few bad outings, he was a dominant closer over the course of the year.

    I am not buying the narrative that Heath Bell is a Petco Park creation. Bell does a fantastic job of keeping the ball away on hitters. And his approach against lefties and righties is the same. He lives on the outer half of the plate. That skill travels well. It’s a skill that depresses home runs and other extra base hits, regardless of the park factors or defense.

    The move by the Marlins gives them an elite closer who is comfortable taking the ball late in close games. Not every pitcher has the mettle to do that sort of thing, night in and night out. And $27 million over 3 years is chump change for the Marlins considering their anticipated increases in revenue. I think signing Bell was a risk worth taking.

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    • Jonny's Bananas says:

      “And $27 million over 3 years is chump change for the Marlins considering their anticipated increases in revenue.”

      Nine million dollars a year has never been “chump change” for Loria (or most of the other non Yankees/Red Sox franchises in the major leagues), and you have to be skeptical that payroll is going to increase in accordance with revenue. As it stands now (and may very well continue to stand), on a team with no center fielder, third baseman, or fourth and fifth starting pitcher, Heath Bell is the third highest paid player. That is not a risk worth taking.

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  6. eric says:

    “he infield played nearly as well, as the infield” you mean ‘as the outfield?’

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  7. The quickest way to turn a 72 win team into a 74 win team is to add a solid closer. The Marlins are trending in the right direction.

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  8. jcxy says:

    “Bell has only been worth $9 million in just three of his seven full seasons.”

    Just curious, how did you calculate that? WAR x the yearly FA $/WAR rate?

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  9. Flharfh says:

    “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.”

    Why should we assume that? Will the new park have the same dimensions as Sun LIfe?

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    • Luke says:

      Apparently it will be a pitchers park as it will have bigger dimensions than Sun Life. However it won’t compare to Petco, where Heath Bell regularly
      saw his pitches die at the warning track.

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  10. reillocity says:

    Hypothetically speaking, Heath Bell would be pretty difficult to reel in. You’d probably have to “land” and/or “gaff” Bell.

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    • Phrozen says:

      True, but “Heath Bell Harpooned, Marlins Hope to Harvest Blubber,” wouldn’t be as catchy,

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    • Steve says:

      Also, the team is named after a fish, not after a fisherman. Did the fish catch Heath Bell? Do fish go fishing? Maybe. I guess some do, but they probably don’t use a reel. Maybe some sort of crude netting made of kelp and discarded plastic six pack holders…

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  11. shamrock says:

    As a Marlins fan I’m pretty much in agreement with the article. The comments however…? I don’t think I’ve ever seen this much hate towards a particular franchise since I’ve started watching baseball. What gives? FYI…

    NL exec on #Marlins: “They’re very active. It’d be no surprise to me if they opened new stadium with Reyes, Wilson and a new good closer”

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    • Phrozen says:

      I don’t think it’s hate, I think it’s a reaction to the new name, new stadium, new (and hideously ugly) colors, and courting of every free agent from the team that spent years spending as little money as possible to do as little as possible.

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  12. Luke says:

    I’m just glad the Padres front office weren’t dumb enough to offer this guy a third year and make him the highest paid player on a bad team! It’s going to be tough watching the Pads next year, but at least I won’t have to watch Bell’s slow decline and stomach him being paid more than anyone else.

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    • PadresFuture says:

      This year should see the young guys get a chance. Will be difficult at times, but I think with the farm system where it is now, we could be looking at a team that competes like the Rays in a couple years…. provided they spend money wisely and wrap up young core players at reasonable costs.

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  13. Sean says:

    His K/9 did drop in 08 and bounced back. Maybe it’s just a year to year thing.

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  14. Wexler says:

    Isnt Juan Pierre the Hispanic Juan Pierre? Or does Creole not count as Hispanic?

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  15. nickmirto says:

    It is both strange and sad that this team makes a move that 95% of the population of baseball savvy people know is a bad move.

    How are some of these people employed?

    This franchise is an utter joke. Terrible personnel decisions. Horrendous farm system. Awful marketing (uniforms and HR display is a joke).

    Loria should stick to dealing art. I guarantee the stadium is half filled by August. Pathetic.

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    • Marver says:

      Some of us would gladly exchange our entire roster for the Marlins entire roster. It also entirely fair to complain about the Marlins lack of player development when they’ve spit out Mike Stanton, Logan Morrison, Josh Johnson, Gaby Sanchez, Chris Coghlan, Ricky Nolasco, Hanley Ramirez, Anibal Sanchez, Cameron Maybin, Dan Uggla, Josh Beckett, A.J. Burnett, Brad Penny, Miguel Cabrera, Josh Willingham, Mike Jacobs, Dontrelle Willis, Cody Ross, Mike Lowell, Jason Vargas, Luis Castillo, etc. etc. in the past decade or so. If there’s one area in which the Marlins have actually failed to produce quality major leaguers, it is out of the bullpen.

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      • Steve says:

        Your point stands, but you are taking double credit for some of those guys as they came from different organizations. I.e. Josh Beckett AND Hanley Ramirez, etc. They get credit for picking up the right guys in trades, but it’s not like they drafted Hanley, Anibal, Maybin, Uggla, Burnett, Lowell, etc.

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  16. Brad Hamilton says:

    ‘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’

    Was this really necessary?

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  17. Telo2 says:

    Johnny Bananas writes the best comments…..He is the coolest person ever.

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  18. Rich Mahogany says:

    This move reminds me of Loria’s purchase of the Expos. He said he was going to make the Expos a premiere free agent destination. His big signing was Graeme Lloyd.

    Granted, Bell is vastly superior to Lloyd, but the Marlins have a lot more money than the Expos did. And relievers are generally alike in that even the best ones can’t significantly improve a team on their own.

    The people writing that the Marlins have the worst FO ever are overreaching. But Loria is a terrible owner. We know that from his tenure with both the Expos and the Marlins, so it’s smart to be skeptical about his intentions now. For the good of baseball, I hope Bell is just one part of a plan to improve the team and isn’t just the Miami Marlins’ version of Lloyd, a “look, we made a move” guy.

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  19. YazInLeft8 says:

    Love Heath Bell as a person though. He doesn’t really seem to have the star power that the Marlins are craving though… so I wonder why? The pen was good, sure they have more money, but not THAT much.

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    • PadresFuture says:

      Doesn’t have the star power because he played in SD. He is quite the character. I think this is a bad signing for the Marlins, but disagree that the contract will be a disaster. Bell, provided he stays healthy, will perform to this contract. Would have been a better signing for a team like the Angels.

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  20. Melkman says:

    Saturday morning quarterbacking here. Bell is an All-Star, a likeable character, and a proven closer. I think he’s a fine acquisition for a team ready to spend money to make money.

    If I was better at navigating this site I’d try to bring up the FG vote on best free agent signing from 2 years ago where everyone was on the amazing Jack Z’s bandwagon and voted Chone Figgins easily the best signing.

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