The Rays are no stranger to handing over the closing reigns to a pitcher without that elusive “established closer” tag. Most recently, they essentially turned the ninth inning over to guys they acquired off the scrap heap or solid, but unspectacular, middle relievers. The team is somewhat doing it again as they acquired former established closer Heath Bell, who you figure will get a shot to be the stopper.
But, Bell is 36 years old and was unable to hold onto the closing gig after incumbent J.J. Putz landed on the disabled list. And oh yeah, he sports a 4.59 ERA over the past two seasons. So is a perennially contending team like the Rays really going to give the ball to Bell to be the man?
What has plagued Bell throughout his career is an inflated BABIP. The average reliever actually has a lower BABIP than the average starter, which makes it that much more surprising that Bell’s career mark is .310. He’s even posted a season mark as high as .395 (!!!) and three more seasons of marks above .330. While one would might confident claiming that Bell’s pitches are hittable, and perhaps his fastball is just flat (his curve ball actually has a higher career BABIP than his fastball), you still must remember that his career spans just 611.1 innings. That’s only about three seasons from a starting pitcher, and while that may be enough to give you some clue as to the pitcher’s underlying BABIP skill, it hardly constitutes a large enough sample.
Bell dealt with gopheritis last season as well, but that isn’t something he has had trouble with previously. His overall skills though were fantastic, and they typically are. So it comes down to whether the ever swinging BABIP yo-yo stops below the .300 bar or above it. The Rays defense should help.
As mentioned many times in the past, one of the most important skills a closer could possess is the ability to get both same-handed and opposite-handed batters out. Throughout Bell’s career, his wOBA split is essentially equal, while his xFIP versus lefties is only a bit higher than righties, and still pretty good. That makes sense since his primary secondary pitch is the curve ball. While I am in no way predicting a return to peak years, I think there’s a good chance he holds the job all year.
But if not, who are the alternatives? Joel Peralta has been the team’s set-up man for years and continues to perform respectably. But he’ll be even older than Bell at 38! Has a 38-year-old ever become a closer for the first time in his career? I doubt it. The Rays know who he is and have never given him a shot at closing. 2014 won’t be the year that changes.
Another option is southpaw Jake McGee who has seemingly been a closer in waiting for forever. Southpaws don’t usually get a chance to close, but the Rays are the type of forward-looking organization that wouldn’t automatically pass over a left-hander simply because of the hand he throws with. McGee has certainly possessed the skills of a dominant reliever and has been better against righties than Bell has been against lefties. But he’s saved all of one game in his short career. That said, those speculating against Bell would be wise to choose McGee as the fallback plan.
The remaining cast of bullpen characters include Juan Oviedo, the pitcher formerly known as Leo Nunez, who missed the entire 2013 season recovering from Tommy John surgery. Between missing an entire year, the typical early performance trend we see from these types of pitchers and the fact that Oviedo really only had one closer-skills worthy season, he could be safely ignored as a potential closer.
Alex Torres came out of nowhere to post a 1.71 ERA last year, but he’s another lefty and was a starter throughout his minor league career. He has also struggled with his control at times. So cross him off the list of candidates. Brandon Gomes? Cesar Ramos? Meh.
It’s not so surprising that the Rays went out and got Bell because none of the other candidates really stand out, aside from perhaps McGee. I get the feeling though that they still don’t trust him yet to be the man. So I would be surprised if Bell did not open the season as closer and since he’ll likely go for bottom tier closer prices, he should offer pretty decent profit potential as one of the better bottom tier options.
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