Heath Bell’s Blameworthy Disaster

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Before he became a “genius” and a “future Hall of Fame executive”, John Schuerholz was the well-liked and competent GM of the Kansas City Royals. He’d won a World Series in 1985 and was not, under any circumstances, expected to one day be feted as the “architect” of a Braves team that would win 14 straight division titles.

In truth he wasn’t an architect of anything. The pieces to that team were in place when he arrived. Already present were Chipper Jones, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Steve Avery, Sid Bream, David Justice and Ron Gant. He made some great, prescient acquisitions such as Greg Maddux, Terry Pendleton and Fred McGriff; had mediocre overall drafts; and was aggressive in making trades on the fly to improve the team.

But he wasn’t a genius.

After a 92-70 season by the Royals in 1989 Schuerholz went on a spending spree that included signing the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner, closer Mark Davis, away from the San Diego Padres to a 4-year, $13 million contract. (It was akin to the Jonathan Papelbon deal of today.)

The Royals had a young closer with Jeff Montgomery and didn’t need Davis.

Amid injuries and underperformance, the team finished at 75-86, 27 1/2 games behind the division winning A’s.

Following the season, Schuerholz left the Royals to take over for Bobby Cox as the Braves’ GM with Cox staying on as manager.

I mention the Davis signing because his nightmare from 1990 echoes what’s happening to Marlins’ closer Heath Bell now.

Bell just isn’t as likable as Davis was.

Yesterday was another atrocious outing for Bell and the unusual step (which is becoming more and more usual for him) of yanking him from a save situation occurred for the second day in a row. Manager Ozzie Guillen’s demeanor in the dugout when Bell is on the mound is becoming increasingly overt with frustration and anger. It’s the exacerbated human nature of the athlete that Bell’s teammates are publicly supporting him and privately saying that it’s enough and he needs to get the job done or it’s time for a change.

Bell’s numbers are bad enough. An 8.47 ERA; 24 hits, 14 walks and only 10 strikeouts in 17 innings and the 4 blown saves don’t tell the whole story. He’s not in a slump. He’s been plain awful.

I called this when I wrote my free agency profile of Bell in November but he’s been far worse than anyone could’ve imagined.

In his first few big league seasons as a transient between Triple A and the Mets, Bell didn’t see eye-to-eye with Mets’ pitching coach Rick Peterson and GM Omar Minaya made a rotten trade in sending Bell away to the Padres. The fact that the trade was bad doesn’t make it wrong that they traded him. The Padres were a situation where he was able to resurrect his career first as a the set-up man for Trevor Hoffman and then as the closer.

The Mets did him a favor.

Bell has a massive chip on his shoulder that indicates a need to prove himself. Perhaps the money and expectations are hindering him. That’s not an excuse. He’s a day or two away from being demoted from the closer’s role by the Marlins not for a few days to clear his head, but for the foreseeable future.

Bell’s locked in with the Marlins for the next 2 ½ years as part of a 3-year, $27 million deal unless they dump him. As of right now, he’s a very expensive mop-up man and the Marlins have every right—even a duty—to use someone else because Bell’s not doing the job. Period.

I seriously doubt they’re going to want to hear his mouth if and when he’s demoted from the closer’s role.

But they will.

Bet on it.


6 thoughts on “Heath Bell’s Blameworthy Disaster

  1. It’s no great secret that paying top dollar for a bullpen arm is risky. The Rangers and Phillies both signed veteran closers in the offseason and (so far) it has worked out.

    The Marlins got Bell and it’s been disastrous.

    When the deal was made I assumed that it had more to do with his name and reputation than anything else. Miami was in on everyone in the offseason. They wanted to make as many splashes as possible and could easily have pulled down 5 big names if the Angels hadn’t scooped Pujols & C.J. Wilson.

    Of course, they didn’t have to look at only the big names. The Rays completely rebuild their bullpen every year. It’s another example of being creative and actually benefiting from not having infinite revenue streams.

    The save stat is silly and paying for saves is even more silly. Yet teams continue to shell out top dollar for “proven closers” like Bell. When they struggle, the manager and other players suffer more than anyone.

    Ozzie’s frustrated that he has to give Bell every opportunity to figure things out, even if it’s costing him wins and/or his health. The players have to stand behind Bell, even if they secretly resent the fact that he’s not delivering.

    At a certain point, it doesn’t matter how much a player is making. If he doesn’t perform, he’s of no use. It might hurt the owner knowing the he wasted his money, but it should probably hurt even more to put a sorry product on the field.

    1. There’s a movement to shift the save stat from the ninth inning to when the game was actually in jeopardy. I think it will eventually happen.
      Bell’s personality is such that he’s a “high/low” and appears to get down on himself and lose confidence very easily. If he gets on a hot streak he’s fine, but when he’s slumping as he is now, he doesn’t think he can get anyone out. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
      I’m willing to pay a closer like Papelbon, but not a Bell. There’s a difference between them even though the stat people will say there isn’t.

      1. Aside from their makeups as a pitcher and the difference in their body types, I’d also consider their respective ages as something that should have been considered.

        Papelbon is only 31, which means he’s still somewhere in the midst of a typical player’s prime. Bell is already 34, which means that he’ll be in his age 37 season by the time his contract runs out.

        Bell was good last year and I have no doubt that he could be good again. I still think that it was silly for Miami to sign him for that much guaranteed money.

        As a Rangers fan, I’m glad that Jon Daniels did the unexpected, trading for Mike Adams rather than renting Bell.

      2. To be fair, Miami did trust him.

        This is where blindly following the “proven closer” tag comes back to bite you. Again, I think everything that Loria and his people did this winter was to convince everyone that they were finally trying to win.

        I’m not sure I could stand being a Marlins fan. What incentive would there really be to stick with your club? How long before you realized that your owner was just a snake oil salesman?

      3. I dunno about the trust thing. They probably figured he’d be good enough. You nailed it right on the head about the “proven closer” thing. They did need someone to close and no one could’ve expected Bell to be this awful.

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