Can Heath Bell Revive His Career With Rays?
Stop if you’ve heard this before. The Rays sign a relief pitcher who has a live arm and experience in the 9th inning who has fallen out of favor with their current organization or is regarded on the downside of their career. The players warts are obvious and tossed around on the blogosphere, sports radio, and twittersphere but in the end it is the Rays that get the last laugh.
The Rays are hoping that familiar script plays itself out once again in St.Petersburg as they have added Heath Bell to the list of the former projects like Joaquin Benoit, Kyle Farnsworth, Juan Cruz, Joel Peralta, and Fernando Rodney.
The only variation in the previous stories is that Heath Bell is coming to the Rays not as a free agent but part of a 3-team trade.
The Rays sent minor league reliever Justin Choate to the Arizona Diamondbacks (along with cash considerations or the player to be named later), the Diamondbacks sent left-handed pitching prospect David Holmberg to the Reds who in turn sent catcher Ryan Hanigan to the Rays.
This will be the second time in his career that Bell will be out to prove himself. The first three seasons of his career (2004-2006) were spent in a New York Mets uniform and he was not very effective appearing in 81 games (109 innings) and posting a 1-5 record with a 4.29 ERA. He was a very hittable pitcher allowing the opposition to post a slash line against him of .301/.348/.438 with 14 home runs and 31 extra-base hits. On the positive side he was able to strike out nearly a batter an inning fanning 105 while only issuing 25 unintentional walks.
After the 2006 season he was traded (along with Royce Ring) to the San Diego Padres for Ben Johson and Jon Adkins and it was in San Diego that he blossomed. He spent his first two seasons as a set up man for the Padres. In 2007 he appeared in 81 games posting a 6-4 record with a 2.02 ERA notching a pair of saves. He held the opposition to a slash line against of .185/.257/.246 with only 3 home runs and 12 extra-base hits in 93.2 innings of work.
He was a workhorse again in 2008 appearing in 74 games (78 innings) posting a record of 6-6 with a 3.58 ERA. The opposition posted a slash line against of .229/.302/.367 with 5 home runs and 19 extra base hits.
After the 2008 season long time closer Trevor Hoffman left the Padres and signed as a free agent with the Milwaukee Brewers. After two solid seasons in the setup role Bell was anointed the Padres closer. He stepped in and the team didn’t skip a beat as he led the National League in saves with 49. He continued to save games with regularity notching 47 in 2010 and another 43 in 2011.
After the 2011 season he was a free agent and was one of a host of players that signed free agent deals with the Miami Marlins as they were about to open their new stadium. He signed a 3 year deal with a vesting 4th year option worth a guaranteed $27 million. He was needed to replace the former Leo Nunez (Juan Carlos Oviedo) whose immigration status was uncertain after he was arrested in the Dominican Republic for using a fake name to obtain a Visa to enter the United States.
His season, along with the Marlins, did not go as planned. The team lost 93 games and in September he went on a local radio show and said he did not respect Guillen. When Guillen was on the radio show to respond someone in the Marlins locker room raised the volume to embarrass Bell as Guillen said when asked if he respected Bell, “As a player, yes. As a guy, I don’t know.” Later Guillen blasted Bell saying, ” “This kid has been saying so many things all year about a lot of people. It was my turn this week.”
After finishing the season 4-5 with a 5.09 ERA and 19 saves and being labeled as a negative influence in the clubhouse he was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks in part of a 3-team deal with the Oakland Athletics and Arizona Diamondbacks. The Marlins were eager to move on so much that they agreed to pay $8M of the $21M remaining on his contract and the only player they received was 21 year old shortstop Yordy Cabrera (from the A’s).
He got off to a rough start in 2013 allowing 3R/ER on 4 hits retiring only 1 batter in his first appearance of the year before settling into his role as setup man. On May 8th the Diamondbacks placed J.J. Putz on the disabled list with a sore elbow and Bell was placed back into his role as closer.
After converting his first three save opportunities his next 16 games were a disaster. In 14.1 innings of work he allowed 9R/ER on 2o hits including 5 home runs in 5 consecutive outings (June 10th to June 22) striking out 13, walking 7, and hitting 5 batters. At the end of June Diamondbacks manager wanted to give Bell an opportunity to regain his confidence and inserted him into two games in lower leverage 7th inning spots and in his first return to the closers role he slammed the door without incident.
Unfortunately, the momentum didn’t continue as he blew his next two save opportunities and was removed from the closers role over the All-Star break. In the second half of the season Bell was placed into lower leverage situations and finished the season with much better numbers.
His season ended on a more positive note. Over his final 30 games he worked 30.1 innings and posted a 3-1 record with a 3.56 ERA. He held the opposition to a slash line of .267/.313/.408 allowing just 4 home runs striking out 35 and only 4 non-intentional walks.
The Rays are hoping that the more spacious Tropicana Field will help with some of the issues he has serving up home runs. Last season his HR/FB% spiked to 18.5% which was the highest since his forgettable 2006 season with the Mets.
His arm is still lively as he averaged 93.1 miles per hour on his fastball and struck out 25.1% of the batters he faced while only walking 5.6%. The problem was that his fastball was very hittable and the opposition posted a batting average of .284 (52 for 183) including 9 home runs. Some pitchers miss outside the strike zone and it appears that Bell may be the type of pitcher that misses location inside the strike zone.
The fact that his fastball was very hittable in 2013 was compounded by the fact that he threw the pitch 67.5% of the time which is right at his career average of 68.6%. His second pitch is a curveball which he threw 32.3% of the time in 2013. The opposition hit .240 (17 for 75) against his curveball with only 1 home run.
Hopefully the laid back environment cultivated by the Rays organization and personified by manager Joe Maddon will allow Bell to relax and regain his confidence. Jim Hickey will go to work and try to fix the problems that have plagued Bell since leaving San Diego.
There is an additional incentive for Bell to make things work and that is a vesting option in his contract that pays him $9M for 2014 if he finishes 55 games in 2014. If he finished those 55 games it would more than likely mean the Rays are heading to another playoff appearance which is what we all want.