Adding Bell shows Marlins are serious but move carries risks
The Marlins had entertained several top free-agents but hadn't signed any yet
Bell has avereged 34 saves and a 2.36 ERA in three years as San Diego's closer
Bell is 34 and his slight drop-off in 2011 may have been the start of his decline
Former Padres closer Heath Bell reportedly signed a three-year, $27 million contract with the Marlins late Thursday night. Here are five thoughts on the deal:
1. The Marlins mean business
For weeks Miami has been a ballplayer carousel, as elite free agents have visited the Marlins in close succession. It's been hard to gauge just how serious these recruiting trips have been -- for all the talk and hoopla, the Marlins hadn't actually signed anyone, so questions remained how much these trips were mutually beneficial charades.
Were the players just there to soak in some South Florida sun and leverage apparent interest from another suitor into a better deal elsewhere? Were the Marlins merely trying to drum up interest and excitement in their club in advance of this spring's move into their new ballpark? 'Tis the season for holiday shopping and season-ticket sales.
But the Bell move provides a resounding "no" to those questions. After all, what sense does it make to give such a rich contract to a man charged with nailing down ninth-inning leads unless you have a club that will regularly be in position to have ninth-inning leads? So while no one really thinks Albert Pujols is going to don the black, yellow, orange and blue of the new-look Marlins uniform, one should expect that one or two more notable pieces -- Jose Reyes? C.J. Wilson? Mark Buerhle? -- will soon join Bell.
2. Is Heath Bell worth the investment?
Replacing a legend is an unenviable chore, but Bell excelled after longtime Padres closer Trevor Hoffman left the club. In the past three seasons Bell has saved 132 games in 146 opportunities -- a 90.4 percent success rate and an average of 44 saves per year -- while pitching to a 2.36 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 9.6 strikeouts per nine innings and 3.2 walks per nine innings. He was an All-Star each season and even received a handful of Cy Young and MVP votes in 2010.
Bell, who turned 34 in late September, did experience a troubling decline in his strikeout rate from 11.1 per nine innings in '10 to 7.3 in '11. Whether it was a one-year aberration or a sign of decline remains to be seen. His average fastball velocity remained exactly the same (94.0 mph) as the year before, but perhaps his stuff didn't move as much or wasn't located as well. The rate at which opponents made contact increased from 73.6 percent of all swings to 81.8, meaning Bell induced fewer swing-and-miss strikes. On the bright side, his walk rate also declined, so he remained a highly effective relief pitcher and probably will throughout the duration of his contract, though he may continue to regress slightly from his 2010 peak.
3. New Marlins philosophy?
How much would you pay for end-of-game security? For the Marlins, historically the answer is "not much." Bell's contract sets a record of total compensation given to a Marlins reliever, eclipsing the four-year, $17.6 million received by Robb Nen before the 1997 season. The deal also sets a record for single-season pay given to a Marlins reliever by the club's current management team, shattering the $3.65 million Leo Nuņez received last year by giving Bell two-and-a-half times that.
Expect this to be more of an isolated case than a prevailing philosophical change, as the timing was perfect for Bell to cash in. The Marlins will set a payroll record in 2012 thanks to the new revenue streams provided by the new ballpark; in anticipation of new fans attending games, the club will want to secure as many wins as possible in order to hold onto as many of them as they can; changes to the CBA mean the signing of Bell won't cost a first-round draft pick; and their relief pitching last year wasn't great.
The relief pitcher formerly known as Nuņez -- who's now known as Juan Carlos Oviedo after the revelation of identity fraud -- saved 36 games but had a 4.06 ERA. Opponents' batters had an OPS of .777 in the ninth inning last year, placing Marlins pitchers last in the NL and 29th in the majors in that category. Miami had a 3.75 ERA in the seventh inning or later, which ranked 22nd in the majors.
4. Bell's elite company
How many clubs have a closer who will make $9 million or more in 2012? Only four and while three are perennial big spenders -- the Yankees (with Mariano Rivera), the Phillies (now with Jonathan Papelbon) and the Tigers (with Jose Valverde) -- the Marlins are now the unlikely fourth entrant on that list, though whoever signs free agent Ryan Madson (and potentially whoever signs Francisco Cordero) could join that group.
Bell is now a part of one other very impressive list: NL East closers. While the Mets have a vacancy at the position, the other four clubs all have stars or stars-in-the-making: Bell, Papelbon, Craig Kimbrel (Braves) and Drew Storen (Nationals).
5. How closers age
Bell's contract begins when he's 34 -- how do closers in that demographic perform? Pretty good, it seems.
For a control group, there have been 909 seasons in which a pitcher aged 34 or older has thrown 50 or more innings while working primarily as a reliever, which accounts for 15.1 percent of the 6,026 such seasons by pitchers of any age.
There are 69 pitchers of all ages who have saved 40 or more games in a year, accounting for 135 such seasons. Among pitchers aged 34 or older, 19 men have accounted for 32 seasons with 40 saves or more. In other words, 27.5 percent of all pitchers who have saved 40 games in a season were 34 or older -- a disproportionate share given that only 15.1 percent of regularly used relief pitchers are that age. Similarly, pitchers who are 34-plus account for 23.7 percent of all such seasons, though only six have had multiple seasons with that many saves.
Save opportunities can vary -- that Rivera, as good as he is, has only reached 40 saves twice in the last six seasons suggests as much -- so tweaking the metrics can provide another look.
By keeping the age-34 minimum, lowering the minimum saves threshold to 30 and adding a stipulation of an ERA that is 2.50 or less, the new search produces 22 men who have had such seasons, which is 26.8 percent of the 82 relievers of any age who had met those standards. Only seven pitchers in the mid-30s crowd have done so more than once, but there's a good recent track record, as 14 of the 22 have had those seasons in 2001 or later.