Commentary

Heath Bell remains valuable with Marlins

Updated: December 2, 2011, 2:08 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

These Florida … er … Miami Marlins are serious about winning, and as was their strategy in 1997, "winning" apparently means dipping into the free-agent pool.

But, in spite of their rumored pursuit of high-ticket names like Albert Pujols, Jose Reyes and C.J. Wilson, the beginning step to the Marlins' free-agent makeover addressed the end: Late Thursday night, the team inked closer Heath Bell to a three-year, $27 million deal, per ESPN.com's Jayson Stark.

[+] EnlargeHeath Bell
Andy Hayt/Getty ImagesHeath Bell was ninth among closers on the Player Rater for the 2011 season.

The Marlins' desire for a new finisher was obvious; this is a team whose former closer, Leo Nunez … er … Juan Carlos Oviedo, is tangled in legal issues related to his falsified identity. Oviedo might not even pitch in the majors in 2012, so a ninth-inning change in Miami was obvious. Heck, along with the new ballpark, the move mirrors the Marlins' 2012 theme: Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes.

Here's the conundrum for fantasy owners: Bell's value, too, should change.

Bell's critics are quick to point out his precipitous drop in strikeouts, and it's an absolutely valid point. His 7.3 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio and 19.9 percentage of batters faced that resulted in a K not only set career lows, they represented 33.6 and 33.7 percent drops in those categories from his 2010 numbers. Opposing hitters put 12 more balls in play against Bell in 2011 than 2010, and they did so in 31 fewer plate appearances, meaning hitters put the ball in play against him 11.9 percent more often last season than in 2010.

A pitcher can get by with fewer strikeouts in a place like San Diego's Petco Park, with its absurd, cavernous 400-foot right-center field alley, but it becomes all the more difficult the smaller the venue gets.

Oddly enough, Bell's home/road splits don't support the argument. In the past three seasons combined, during which time the right-hander had the most saves in baseball (170), his ERA at home was 2.76, homers per nine allowed 0.44, and hits per nine allowed 7.71. On the road, his numbers were 2.01, 0.27 and 6.99. Let those numbers -- as well as the prospect that Bell's dip in K rate was at least somewhat fueled by random fluctuation -- serve as your basis for keeping him among the top 10 fantasy closers entering 2012.

But the downside is now at least somewhat noticeable, and it has to do entirely with the change in venues, as well as a lack of data on how the Marlins' new ballpark will play. In terms of dimensions, the new ballpark is six feet deeper down the left field line (340-334), 13 feet deeper down the right-field line (335-322), eight feet shallower in right-center (392-400), 17 feet shallower in left-center (384-401) and 20 feet deeper in center (416-396). As the fences are supposedly going to be the same height throughout the ballpark, gone will be the higher, tougher-on-homers fence in left field at Sun Life Stadium. On the surface, the new Marlins ballpark, while hardly a hitter-friendly park, won't be quite the pitchers' heaven that Petco is.

Something else to consider: Left-handed hitters tend to give Bell more trouble, as they managed .283/.354/.372 rates against him in 2011, compared to .164/.218/.233 for right-handers; those numbers were .253/.335/.337 and .184/.241/.244 from 2009-11 combined. Gone is the advantage of spacious right and right-center fields in San Diego; and while Sun Life Stadium also suppressed left-handed power, its replacement might not be quite as tough. Certainly it won't be nearly as difficult as the dimensions at Petco.

Job security, of course, won't be an obstacle for Bell in Miami. Three years guarantees him a long leash even if he blows a couple more saves than in the past, as does the fact that his primary setup man, Steve Cishek, has but three career saves on his résumé. Oviedo, meanwhile, probably isn't long for Miami if he even plays.

Projecting Bell's save total is difficult, especially with the Marlins' winter shopping still in its early stages, but that he has managed at least 42 in each of the past three seasons, for a San Diego Padres team that averaged 79 wins per year, supports his ability to notch 40-plus again. Sum it up and Bell brings more risk than in the past, but as a 35-save, 2.75 ERA, 1.20-WHIP closer, likely at worst, he's a surefire top-10 option with top-five potential. I ranked him my No. 8 closer when he was a free agent, and I'd keep him right there with his new team because that initial ranking accounted for downside related to the possibility he'd depart Petco.

And what of potential finishers for Bell's old team, the Padres?

Luke Gregerson and Ernesto Frieri become the two most obvious in-house choices, Gregerson perhaps holding the slight edge if only because of greater experience as a setup man, as well as a greater ground-ball rate (48.2 percent in his career, compared to 25.1 for Frieri) and lower fly-ball rate (35.3 percent compared to 55.4). Expect them to battle for the job during the spring and early part of the regular season, meaning either warrants a look in NL-only leagues.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can email him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.

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