Nothing Fishy about interest in Heath Bell

December, 1, 2011
12/01/11
9:00
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The Marlins have noisily associated themselves with most of the biggest big-name free agents, flirting with Jose Reyes, Albert Pujols, Mark Buehrle and C.J. Wilson. Now, a lot about this smacks of aggressive brand promotion now that the Fish have brought in Ozzie Guillen to manage, changed their look, and anticipate moving into their new stadium next spring. It would be remarkable if they land any one of those four free agents, but the rumors buzzing around their reaching an agreement with the Padres’ Heath Bell could have legs.

Keep in mind that the Marlins could already anticipate their expenses expanding by $15 million from 2011 to 2012 thanks to having back-loaded their multi-year commitments to Hanley Ramirez, Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco and John Buck among others. That’s before getting into the expense of haggling with plenty of arbitration-eligible players; they may sensibly discard the entirely replaceable guys, the Joe Nelson types, as they did before, but doing so might spoil all the good vibrations they’re so busily trying to cultivate among an understandably skeptical fan base.

[+] EnlargeHeath Bell
Andy Hayt/Getty ImagesAre the Marlins targeting San Diego's Heath Bell?
So even before Larry Beinfest and Mike Hill could start spending some significant chunk of the Lorians’ lucre, you could reasonably expect the Fish to top a $70 million payroll in 2012. We’ll see how far they’re willing to go beyond that, and whether by attaching themselves to some of the market’s biggest stars isn’t just a case of trying to keep their name in the papers with all of the dignity of a D-list socialite chasing after paparazzi instead of the other way around.

The reason Bell might be different has everything to do with their situation and his. Where the aforementioned quartet of big names are all in demand and likely to sign elsewhere for bigger money than the Fish are used to flinging around, Bell may not have quite as much going for him as the free agents in greatest demand.

First, there’s his age. Bell was already almost 30 before he got his break with the Padres after the Mets prematurely ditched him in a ticky-tack trade in 2006 that defied easy rationalization. He’ll be 34 next season, so it isn’t like he’s in the same situation as Jonathan Papelbon or even Ryan Madson. As a result, this represents his first and probably only chance to score an eight-figure multi-year commitment, but his age probably militates against his getting everything he wants.

Also arguing against his getting top dollar is how much benefit he’s gotten from pitching in Petco Park the past five years. Career, he’s allowed just 2.5 runs per nine in San Diego, against 3.8 R/9 everywhere else he’s pitched in the majors. He’s become more of a fly-ball pitcher since coming to the Padres, which can be seen as adapting and exploiting the park’s wide-open spaces, but with that goes a slightly higher rate of homers allowed on the road: 0.6 to 0.4 HR/9, so we aren’t talking about Lidge-like combustibility here, but it’s another cause for concern.

Then there’s his strikeout rate’s decline. It dropped below 30 percent of all opponents’ at-bats for the first time in his Padres career. Given that very few people whiff hitters at that clip forever, it isn’t like last year’s 20 percent K-rate is cause for extreme alarm, since he's still above-average and throwing around 94 mph. But it’s another factor that bidders can talk up while trying to talk down Bell’s price.

Put those three things together, and you can see how Bell could be the kind of quality closer the Marlins would be willing to afford. With the sticky legal situation over the identity of Leo Nunez/Juan Oviedo (aka, the closer to be named later), the have an opening and might be able to hand-wave their way past the various mild causes or concern that go into making a multi-year commitment to Bell. Keep in mind, we have no real idea how the Marlins’ park will play, but Bell’s track record is more than good enough overall to get him major money and a multi-year commitment, even if he doesn’t get beyond an Average Annual Value of $10 million per year in the deal.

Getting three years guaranteed might entail giving up no-trade protection or a guaranteed donation to the team charity or whatever other bits have to be wangled to make everyone happy. Here’s hoping that, both parties willing, this is one rumor that’s going somewhere.

Friday P.M. postscript: This post went up a couple of hours before the announcement that Bell had agreed to terms with the Marlins on a three-year, $27 million deal, a contract that includes provisions for a fourth-year vesting option for another $9 million.

Depending on your point of view, this was wonderful, terrible or significant, or some combination thereof. Naturally, a lot of statheads decried the expense, wailing over Bell's declining strikeout rate -- without noting that it's still higher than league average -- and his fly-ball rate, without observing that it was higher before he had Petco to pitch in, and without anyone having any idea how Municipal Shakedown Stadium will play.

Mostly, the shrieking was over the idea that closers are overpriced and fairly fungible, a point I'm generally in agreement with. Lots of people can and do quite nicely as closers when you give them the opportunity. I wouldn't go so far as to say anybody can close, because it isn't like you want a situational specialist getting over-exposed, and you can't just chuck the notion that some guys just aren't comfortable in the role. But .

But this also goes to Jim Bowden's point, that the Marlins sent a message with this deal. Unlike getting Hanley Ramirez or Josh Johnson or Ricky Nolasco to agree to multi-year deals, those contracts were matters of using the leverage of club control to induce their own players to accept financial security. Signing Bell's different -- they Marlins landed a man on the market, available to all.

You could argue that they paid a premium for that by paying a deal with a $9 million AAV, but Bell got a lot less per annum than Jonathan Papelbon ($12.5 million AAV for four years) for a shorter stretch, and more than Joe Nathan for longer ($7.25 million AAV over two). And as I speculated, they'd get him for less than eight large per year, but offer a third guaranteed year to get him. In essence, the Marlins behaved like an equal competitor on the market, and that's new for them. You can bet players and their agents will notice.

On the other hand, “everybody's doing it” isn't exactly the ultimate in justifications for doing something, even when you're a team with a rep as lousy as the Marlins when it comes to paying people. The ready demand from the smart set is that the Marlins could have gotten somebody else nearly as effective for less. That's a reasonable argument, but only up to a point -- the Hot Stove league doesn't operate like a true open market, because not everyone is available. Trading for alternatives is great to posit in the abstract, liberating some put-upon set-up man robbed of the opportunity to rack up saves, but the teams that employ them have this annoying tendency of wanting to keep them for themselves, or demanding value in trade.

Put it all together, and I think the expense -- and the message it sends -- can't help but improve the Marlins' chances to land another big name in free agency. If it's Albert Pujols or Jose Reyes, that's something. If it's Aramis Ramirez, on the other hand... well, we'll just have to see, won't we?

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

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