by Daniel Gettinger
Heath Bell is a very good reliever. Last season he threw nearly 70 innings and struck out 79 batters. His ERA of 2.71 was not a function of Petco Park. His 2.42 FIP, 3.02 xFIP, and 2.25 tERA are all evidence that Bell was not just lucky last season. This season, he projects to be just as good.
That said, the San Diego Padres should still trade Heath Bell. As good as he is, Bell is a reliever. Relievers do not add much value relative to full time position players and starters.
According to Fangraphs WAR, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Jonathan Broxton was the most valuable reliever in the major leagues last season. He accumulated 2.9 WAR. In 2008, Mariano Rivera was the league’s most valuable reliever. His WAR: 3.1.
To put this into perspective, 49 starters had a higher WAR than Broxton in 2009. Zach Greinke, the major league leader in WAR for pitchers, was at 9.4 — over three times Broxton’s WAR in 2009. As for position players, 76 players were more valuable than Jonathan Broxton in 2009. And this is in comparison to the most valuable reliever in baseball.
That said, a high quality reliever can be very useful for a good team that plays in a lot of high leverage situations. Typically when I refer to a high leverage situation, I am talking about an important moment in a particular game. In this case however, I am referring to situations that can impact whether or not a team will make the playoffs.
For teams on the playoff bubble, winning close games is immensely important. Just a game or two can be the difference between a playoff birth and a shot at the world series, and a disappointing season. The value of high quality relievers to this type of team almost certainly exceeds the baseline WAR of that player.
The Padres are not such a team. Like it or not, the Padres are not yet ready to compete for a playoff spot. Sure the team has a few nice pieces, but it is at least two years away from being truly competitive.
In itself, not being competitive this year (or even next year) is not good enough reason to justify trading Heath Bell. The real issue is that Bell’s age and contract situation does not make him a great fit for the team two or three years down the road.
Bell is 32 years old. His fastball was 3 MPH slower in 2009 than in 2007, and his slider was 4 MPH slower than in 2007. As Bell continues to age, he is likely to continue to lose velocity. He may still be an effective pitcher, but he is unlikely to be as effective.
Meanwhile, as Bell continues to age, his salary is likely to increase. According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts Bell currently has a touch over four years of service time. This season, his second eligible for arbitration, he agreed to a $4MM contract. He will be eligible for arbitration once again following the 2010 season, and then eligible for free agency following the 2011 season.
Closers are well compensated by both the arbitration and free agent process. Teams still seem willing to pay a premium for saves, and arbiters seem just as willing to provide large rewards for proven closers. Typically, a player is expected to earn approximately 80% of their free agent value in their final year of arbitration. Although I don’t have the stats to back it up, I would guess that closers receive even greater percentage.
Essentially, Heath Bell is only cheap for the Padres through this season. In 2011, he will get paid between 80% and 100% of his full value, and after that, he becomes a free agent. Because the Padres are not expected to compete this season (and possibly not next), Bell does not provide as much value to the Padres as he would a better team.
Meanwhile, the Padres do have a number of possible replacements for Bell. Mike Adams and Luke Gregerson were both excellent last season, each striking out over ten batters per nine innings. Promising arms like Joe Thatcher, Adam Russel, and Ryan Webb may step up and prove to be late inning relievers as well. Replacing Bell’s production is not a huge concern.
Because the Padres are not expected to be good while Bell is both good and cheap, trading him makes a lot of sense. This is especially true because losing Bell will not be as damaging from an on-field perspective as most fans believe. The Padres do not necessarily need to trade Heath Bell today. The team should trade him at the moment they believe they can get the greatest return (taking into account possible fan backlash and decreased ticket revenue). But trading Bell this season is something that should be done.