In the three-team deal they made with the Cincinnati Reds and Arizona Diamondbacks, the Tampa Bay Rays acquired two players: Ryan Hanigan and Heath Bell. It was Hanigan who they really wanted. Though he was coming off a poor season, Hanigan was a catcher with a .262 career average, a .359 OBP, and excellent defense. The Rays had never possessed a catcher as good as Hanigan in their history, and they knew that he would be a significant upgrade to their team on both sides of the ball. In order to acquire Hanigan, however, the Rays had to not only give up prospects Todd Glaesmann and Justin Choate, but also take on Bell and his $5.5 million salary. It is that last condition that is the only thing bothering the Rays from this trade.
Ryan Hanigan has been incredible to begin the year as the Rays’ starting catcher, hitting to a .254/.329/.437 line (115 OPS+) with 4 doubles, 3 homers, and 17 RBI in 79 appearances. Several of those numbers are quite surprising. Hanigan already has 3 home runs after hitting 4 in 631 plate appearances from 2012 to 2013 and 17 RBI after just 20 last year. He is hitting for more power than he ever has before, and it may not last. Hanigan’s defense, on the other hand, is the same that it has always been. Hanigan led the National League in caught stealing percentage in both 2012 and 2013 and is leading the American League in the category in the early going as well, throwing out 46% of attempted basestealers. He also has appeared in 25 of the Rays’ 32 games, putting him on pace for 127 on the year, which would be his career-high. Hanigan has been everything the Rays could have hoped for thus far, and they are excited to have him under contract for at least the next two years as well.
The Rays were confident that the value that Hanigan would give them would outweigh anything that Glaesmann and Choate could provide in the future. That made the decision to part with the two prospects a relatively easy one. Glaesmann was the Rays’ Minor League Player of the Year in 2012, but issues with patience and pitch recognition put his ability to hit at higher levels in serious question. Choate, meanwhile, was a non-drafted free agent signee, and he faced long odds right from the start. Little did the Rays know that they were getting rid of both players at the perfect time. Glaesmann decided to retire from baseball at just 23 years of age under three months after the trade, and Choate has since joined him on the voluntary retired list. The Rays can safely say that they gave up nothing by including these two prospects in the trade.
Yet the disappointment of Heath Bell has to negate some of the success of the other parts. The Rays acquired the 36 year old right-hander thinking that he could be a big part of their bullpen. Though Bell had managed just a 4.59 ERA between 2012 and 2013, his 9.9 K/9 and 2.2 BB/9 in the latter season made him look like the Rays’ latest relief signing who would turn in a dominant season. The Rays were going to be paying Bell $5.5 million, so it was not a major bargain, but the best-case scenario was a great year and it seemed unlikely that he would be anything worse than a usable middle reliever. Little did the Rays know that his fastball velocity would drop from 93.95 MPH to 92.78 MPH without his command improving, and that a newfound splitter would not make up for any of what he lost. Overall, Heath Bell will earn that $5.5 million for 13 appearances in which he allowed a 7.27 ERA. It was not all bad–he saved the Rays’ bullpen on a couple of occasions and won their 14-inning game with 2.1 scoreless innings of relief. However, that was not a single moment where Bell looked like a potential late-inning arm. He never gained Joe Maddon‘s trust, and it was clear that he never would.
The point to remember about Bell’s terrible stint in Tampa Bay, though, is that it only took place over the course of one year–heck, over the course of a little over a month. Hanigan will be benefiting the team for the next three years and maybe four. The Rays will get nothing for their $5.5 million, but split that money over the three years of Hanigan’s extension and they still would have agreed to it. The Rays took a risk on Heath Bell, and it did not work out. But the Rays only acquired Bell to facilitate adding Hanigan to be their starting catcher, and the success of that venture overcomes any damage Bell may have done.