The Ones That Got Away: Heath Bell


Heath Bell was drafted by one team and one team only. That team was the Tampa Bay Rays. In the 69th round of the 1997 MLB Draft, the second in the history of the team, they selected Bell out of Rancho Santiago Junior College. Bell did not sign. The players the Rays drafted in the 1997 MLB Draft have combined for 8.8 WAR (wins above replacement). 6.7 of that, 76% of the total, came from Bell alone.

Bell signed with the Mets as a 20 year old amateur free agent in 1998 and dominated as he worked his way up from Rookie ball to High-A from 1998-2000 as he dominated to the tune of a 2.57 ERA, a 10.9 K/9, a 2.6 BB/9, a 0.6 HR/9, and 56 saves in 125 appearances spanning 168.1 IP. His FIP was an incredible 2.61. Bell hit a bump in the road in 2001 at Double-A, posting a 6.02 ERA and 5.19 FIP in 43 appearances thanks to a horrendous 1.9 HR/9, but he rebounded to a 2.58 ERA and a ridiculous 1.87 FIP in 46 relief appearances in 2002 between Double-A and Triple-A, posting a 9.9 K/9, just a 1.9 BB/9, and his homer rate went from a problem to a strength as it dropped precipitously to 0.3. Bell then slipped to a 4.71 ERA in 40 relief appearances in 2003, but he posted a 9.8 K/9, a 1.4 BB/9, and a 0.7 HR/9, leading to a 2.68 FIP, showing that his struggles were more fluky than anything else. Bell posted a 3.12 ERA and 3.10 FIP at Triple-A in 2004 before making his big league debut with the Mets that same season, posting a 3.33 ERA and an outstanding 5.55 to 1 strikeout to walk ratio in 17 appearances, but he allowed 5 home runs, a terrible 1.8 HR/9, leading to a 4.39 FIP. Bell would spend the next two seasons splitting time between Triple-A and the majors, posting a 1.46 ERA and 1.50 FIP in 43 minor league relief appearances, but he posted just a 5.38 ERA in the majors although his FIP was 3.45, and the Mets traded him to the Padres following the season.

Bell went on to post a 2.73 ERA and 2.80 FIP as a setup man from Trevor Hoffman over the next two seasons before the Padres allowed Hoffmann to go to the Brewers and installed Bell as their closer. In his first season as a closer, Bell was an All-Star, going 6-4 with a 2.71 ERA, and incredible 2.48 FIP, and a league-leading 42 saves in 68 relief appearances. Bell was even better in 2010, going 6-1 with a 1.93 ERA, a 2.04 FIP, and 47 saves in 67 relief appearances. He was an All-Star again, finished 8th in the NL Cy Young Award voting, and even finished 25th in the NL MVP voting. But something was off for Bell in 2011. He posted a 2.44 ERA and 43 saves in 64 relief appearances, but his FIP went up to 3.31. From 2009-2010, Bell posted a 10.6 K/9. In 2011, it was just 7.3.

The Miami Marlins, in the excitement over their new stadium, ignored the warning signs and signed the 34 year old Bell to a 3 year, 24 million dollar contract. In 11 relief appearances for the Marlins in 2012, Bell has posted just a an 11.42 ERA and converted just 3 of 7 save opportunities while walking 10 (2 intentionally) while striking out just 6 in 8.2 IP. His command has been completely off and his performance has vastly suffered. He was recently removed from the closer role, at least for the time being. Bell has not looked like the player the Marlins thought they were getting.

Bell may not be the same player that he was from 2009-2011 anymore, but for those three years he was arguably the top closer in baseball, and he was an effective reliever from 2007-2008 as well. The Rays could have really used him. In 2007, of all Devil Rays relievers, minimum 40 relief appearances, the lowest ERA was 4.89 and the lowest FIP was 4.77. In 2008, the Rays’ closer, Troy Percival, posted a 4.53 ERA and 5.94 FIP. And in 2009, the Rays had a closer-by-committee. Things could have been better with Bell in the fold during those days.

When you have 92 picks in one draft, one of them almost has to be good by random chance. Heath Bell was that player. The fact that Bell was drafted by the Rays, and only the Rays, is simply a footnote of a footnote in baseball history. But it did actually happen and we’re left wondering how things could have been different he had signed.