We've often discussed Ryan Hanigan here at DRaysBay, but the three-way trade that brought not only Hanigan but also Heath Bell to Tampa Bay was a surprise. So for perspective on Bell and on Arizona's thinking, I went to someone who would know: Jim McLennan of AZ Snake Pit (@AZSnakepit).
Ian Malinowski: Some people are talking about this deal as a pure salary dump for the Diamondbacks, but $6 million (the amount of Bell's salary not paid by Miami) isn't all that much and no one expected a salary dump TO the Rays this offseason. What's going on in Arizona? Can you shed some lights on the financial situation Kevin Towers is dealing with?
Jim McLennan: Going by owner comments, the payroll cap for Arizona next year is likely to be maybe $105 million, but that doesn't leave room for any significant, high-quality acquisitions, with commitments to existing players for 2014 running marginally below $100 million. Towers is looking for a front-end starter, and also someone with power who can protect Paul Goldschmidt in the line-up. While's it's expected we'll be going down the trade route rather than free agency, those things won't come cheap, and payroll needs to be cleared to fund them. Bell's $6 million (after $3 million from Miami) certainly seemed surplus to requirements.
IM: Bell performed well after losing closer duties. Is it as simple as saying that he's lost his high-leverage confidence?
JM: I don't think leverage particularly came into it; to me, it was more a case of horrible inconsistency. He could be good for weeks at a time, but then implode and be unable to get anyone out. Right from his Arizona debut, when he retired one of six batters faced, we just never knew what we'd get, which is why fans and commentators alike called it "The Heath Bell Experience." Only two relief pitchers in the NL had more outings allowing a crooked number of earned runs than Bell, and they both pitched in Coors. It almost felt like when he went into a game, you needed to have someone else warming up, just in case it was going to be one of those days, which isn't really what you want for a closer!
IM: I look at Heath Bell and I see a once-dominant pitcher who regained his mojo in Arizona but had his improvements hidden by a ridiculous and almost certainly unsustainably high HR/FB rate. His rate in 2013 was ten points higher than his career rate, and it was in a small sample size. I'm just looking at numbers though, and haven't watched Bell pitch a single game since 2011, probably. What did you see? Do you think he'll return to normal levels, or is he giving up the long ball for a reason?
JM: Some of column A, some of column B. He was pitching in a very hitter friendly park, so moving back to sea-level should help some fly balls stay inside the walls. But I think some of the increase was legitimate. The problem with Bell was really whether he could locate his pitches, and in particularly his curve, for a strike. When he could do that, he was almost unhittable. But when batters could lay off the curve, and wait for a fastball after Bell fell behind in the count... Well, these are major-league hitters: poorly-located offering WILL tend to leave the park at an elevated rate. He had a run of five consecutive appearances where he allowed a homer; no NL reliever has had a longer streak since 1995. That's either very bad luck, or there's something to it.
IM: Apparently, Bell had some beef with the coaching staff in Arizona. What was that all about?
JM: You know as much about that as I do! I know it was a problem in Miami, but can't say I'd heard too much about that in Arizona.
IM: Well, I often get Arizona and Miami confused. They're both warm places with young teams that have won the world series. You can change your answer after the PTBNL is announced, but are you happy with the trade?
JM: Worth noting, Kevin Towers (and, perhaps less significantly for moves, Kirk Gibson) did NOT have their contract options picked up by the Diamondbacks this winter. So it's fair to say that the team's performance this year will decide their future job security. Inevitably, I think, this will instill a certain "win now" mentality, and I suspect that's what partly drove this deal. I'm more or less of the school that relievers - particularly closers - are overpaid due to their volatility, and very few are worth $5+ million per year, with the money better spent elsewhere.
On that basis, I think we're well rid of Bell. I am somewhat sorry to see the price for his departure be David Holmberg, whom I think will prove more valuable in the long run than $6 million in saved salary, and as you note, it does also depend on the PTBNL. But for 2013 at least, I'm inclined to give this one a cautious thumbs-up.