By The Common Man
Late last night, news broke that Heath Bell had agreed to terms with the Miami Marlins, who amazingly offered him $27 million over three years, plus a vesting option. This is the second most absurd proposed allocation of resources that The Common Man has ever heard of. The first, obviously, is that for the privilege of owning the entire Smallville series on DVD, you need to shell out $340 this Christmas. Seriously, if you had the choice of paying $9 million a year to Heath Bell and $340 for buying the entire Smallville series, you’d probably choose Bell, but it would be close wouldn’t it? Like, you’d have to think about it.
It’s not that Bell’s a bad pitcher, but he does raise some significant red flags. For one thing, he’s going to be 34 years old next year and relievers are prone to huge fluctuations. For another, while his velocity hasn’t dropped, his strikeout rate has down to the lowest level of his career. He also pitched half of his games at Petco Park, where offenses go to die. And finally, the value of a guy who is going to throw, at the most, 70 innings for you simply isn’t high enough to justify $9 million dollars a year, no matter how many other teams are shelling out for big time closers in 2012.
Since taking over at closer for the Padres in 2009, Bell has saved 132 games at a 90.4% rate. In that same time frame, Juan Oviedo (formerly Leo Nunez) saved 92 games for the Fish at an 81.4% rate. The vast difference in the number of the saves is a function both of Bell’s higher save percentage and also the vastly increased number of save opportunities that Bell had in San Diego (Bell had 33 more chances than Oviedo over three years).
But here’s the thing: If Hoffman (oops, Freudian slip) Bell has fewer opportunities in Miami, the value in the difference in quality between Oviedo and Bell is greatly minimized given how rigidly closers are used these days. Indeed, the difference between Nunez and Bell turns out to be roughly 10 saves over the three seasons. Is that worth $9 million a year, when the Fish have paid Oviedo and Kevin Gregg a combined $9.1 million over the past 5 years to save games? It's hard to believe any reliever is truly likely to provide enough value to make a $9 million annual salary worth it, let alone a lower-payroll club like the Marlins.
So why the sudden change in strategy, when Miami has been buying low on closers for almost their entire history, and pretty much always getting away with it? (In fact, the last time they spent more than $4 million on a closer was their inaugural season of 1993, when they paid Bryan Harvey $4.23 million.) It's terribly unclear, unless the goal was simply to create any kind of positive buzz around the city for the ballclub.
No matter how excited the fanbase does or doesn't get over a new closer, to make the difference between Bell and whatever acceptable reliever they wanted to use out of the bullpen worth it, the Marlins would need to either expand the closer role greatly (which, given their usage of Oviedo, they don’t seem likely to do) or vastly increase the number of save opportunities that the closer has. And they aren’t likely to do that unless they buckle down and sign more free agents this offseason, especially since they may lose Javier Vazquez. It just seems so unnecessary, especially when that money would be much better spent elsewhere.