Heath Bell trade: Addition by subtraction for Marlins

Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

The Miami Marlins made the first trade of the MLB offseason, but it wasn't the rumored deal for Alex Rodriguez. Miami dumped free-agent disappointment Heath Bell, in exchange for infield prospect Yordy Cabrera.

During a disappointing 2012, perhaps no member of the Miami Marlins was a bigger disappointment than Heath Bell.* Bell was brought in on a three-year, $27 million contract to be the Marlins' shutdown closer for the near future. Although this deal was derided by many writers as being an over-spend for a declining relief arm, even naysayers expected Bell to at least be a competent relief arm.

* Note: Well, maybe Logan Morrison was more disappointing. But we'll probably talk about that later in the offseason.

The thing is, Heath Bell wasn't horrible last season, at least if you look at a few advanced stats. Bell had a 5.09 ERA in 2012, which isn't good however you slice it. But underneath that ERA is a perfectly-okay 3.72 FIP. FIP is a stat that quantifies all the stuff a pitcher definitely can control: strikeouts, walks and home runs, and it's on the same scale as ERA. An FIP of 3.72 isn't that of an elite closer, but it's that of a reasonably-good reliever. While Heath's K% dipped considerably in 2011, it rebounded (just a hair) to 20.6% last season. What punished Bell the most last season was a strand rate of just 67% -- which is awful and oftentimes attributed to poor luck more than any pitcher's actual skill.

What Bell did, though, was he completely ate it in the clutch. FanGraphs publishes a stat called win probability added, or WPA. When it comes to WPA, Bell was awful. He had a -3.03 WPA for 2012, in just under 64 innings. You know who had a lower WPA than Heath Bell, among qualified relievers? No one. Remember hearing about how bad things were for John Axford or Carlos Marmol? Not so bad, compared to Heater.

And instead of looking at saves and blown saves -- two stats that don't accurately reflect a reliever's real performance -- let's look at shutdowns and meltdowns, another stat that reflects how a reliever affected the game based on how they changed the team's win expectancy. Bell was good for 14 meltdowns in a season, which is about what you would expect from one of the league's worst relievers. Bell also had only 27 shutdowns, which is less than any of his previous full seasons in San Diego.

So while Heath Bell wasn't exactly a complete disaster, he wasn't the closer that the Marlins wanted or needed. To the Miami front office's credit, the team was able to move Bell before the playoffs have even finished. As part of a three-team trade with the Athletics and Diamondbacks, the team traded Bell to Arizona (along with $8 million of his contract) and received prospect Yordy Cabrera from the A's in return. Meanwhile, the Diamondbacks net Bell and Cliff Pennington from the A's, while the Athletics added former All-Star center fielder Chris Young.

Now, instead of Bell, the Fish now have Cabrera, a young infielder who was drafted by the Athletics during the 2012 Rule 4 Draft, for his bat and his strong arm. Unfortunately, Cabrera hasn't panned out so far in the minors. It has only been two years in the minors, but both Cabrera's bat and glove have regressed. Yordy looked to scouts as if he had plus raw power when he signed, but he hasn't shown that in his stops in Burlington and High-A Stockton. A 2012 slash line of .232/.293/.332 doesn't impress anyone, whether you're only playing in your age-21 season or not. That's a very, very bad bat, one that isn't even acceptable for a shortstop.

Worse than that, though, is that Cabrera really isn't a shortstop. He's going to be a third baseman or right fielder if everything breaks right with the bat, and even at the top end of his projection, he may not hit well enough to play either of those positions. In truth, Cabrera is a lottery ticket, and a bad bet at that. If somehow he finds his way with the stick, he could be a regular, but he's got quite a long way to go, both in development and in terms of levels to jump.

The only other interesting thing about Cabrera is something that Keith Law posted in an Insider piece over at ESPN. Cabrera has a phenomenal arm, and threw 90 mph gas in high school. Perhaps the Marlins see the possibility of moving Cabrera's stalled bat to the shelf, and having him pitch again?

In truth, the Marlins could have used a player like Chris Young, who moved to Oakland as part of the three-team swap. Young's a very strong defensive center fielder with an average bat, and given the dimensions of Marlins Park, he'd be a valuable asset in center for a Marlins team in transition.

The fact that Young probably *could* have been available to the Marlins in a Bell trade, but the team did not acquire him, continues to two pieces of data: (1) the Marlins are not looking to add serious payroll and (2) the team is looking to build towards a window of competition starting post-2013. Given the strengths of the Nationals and Braves, and the deep pockets of the Phillies, this is probably a wise course of action.

Sure, the team added a high-upside, low-likelihood prospect. But the big gain for the Marlins in this deal was ditching most of Bell's onerous contract. A rebuilding team in the Marlins' situation doesn't need a high-priced "closer" at the back of the bullpen. What they do need is the flexibility to fill multiple holes, and to spend the team's money on acquisitions that will give the team more bang for their buck. Though the team can't go back in time and undo the ill-advised Bell signing from the previous offseason, this move at least allows the team to move forward. Hopefully the front office has learned a valuable lesson about wagering big bucks on a veteran reliever.

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