Slight Risk With Heath Bell Allows Rays to Acquire Ryan Hanigan


When we were talking about the Tampa Bay Rays acquiring Ryan Hanigan from the Cincinnati Reds, it was presumed that it would be a simple trade of Hanigan for a prospect. Instead, the trade turned into a crazy three-team deal with the Reds and Arizona Diamondbacks that so far looks like this:

Rays acquire C Ryan Hanigan from Reds and RHP Heath Bell from Arizona and trade RHP Justin Choate and player to be named to Arizona.

Arizona acquires Choate and PTBNL from Rays and trades RHP Heath Bell and cash to Rays and LHP David Holmberg to Reds.

Reds acquire RHP David Holmberg from Arizona and trade C Ryan Hanigan to Rays.

The Reds got their solid prospect in exchange for Hanigan in Holmberg. But to make that happen, the Rays had to go through quite a bit of craziness with the D-Backs. They had to take on Bell and $5.5 million of his $9 milllion salary with most of the remainder being paid not by Arizona but by the Miami Marlins. They also gave the D-Backs a forgettable relief prospect in Choate and a player to be named later who Arizona general manager Kevin Towers says is the “key to the trade.” How do we make sense of this whole thing? Why didn’t the Rays just trade a Holmberg-caliber prospect to the Reds and make the deal so much more simple?

The easy answer to that question is that the Reds liked Holmberg more than whoever the Rays were willing to deal. Beyond that, though, this whole maneuver gives the Rays the opportunity to get their man in Hanigan while giving up lesser prospects than they normally would have. Whoever this player to be named later is, we are not talking about anything more than a second-tier prospect in the lower minors. But was it worth the cost? In exchange for giving up a worse prospect the Rays had to take on Bell and his contract. Was that a worthwhile move? Bell was a dominant closer for a while, managing a 2.36 ERA, a 216-73 strikeout to walk ratio, and an average of 44 saves per season between 2009 and 2011 for the San Diego Padres. But after signing as a free agent with the Marlins, Bell had just a 5.09 ERA in his first season with the team, prompting a trade to Arizona. Then he only recovered to an extent in 2013, managing a 4.11 ERA in his 69 appearances. Why pay a reliever on the downswing $5.5 million? Couldn’t the Rays get two of their usual low-cost relief signings for that much?

What makes Bell different from the Rays’ usual reliever reclamation projects is that he has been healthy and effective for years now. Bell has seen his fastball velocity decline to an extent, but he has never hit the disabled list and has actually appeared in 60 or more games each of the last seven years. Bell turned 36 in September and there may come a time when that ends, but the Rays can be reasonably confident that he will appear in 60 games once again this season, this time in their uniform. And in regards to performance, Bell’s struggles are nothing a change in venue and improved defense can’t fix.

In 2013, Bell had an outstanding 72-16 strikeout to walk ratio in 65.2 innings pitched, but he allowed well over a hit per inning and 12 home runs, a scary 1.6 HR/9. The HR/9 was especially notable because it was his highest since 2004. Bell was playing in an extremely hitter-friendly ballpark in Arizona’s Chase Field, and that combined with some misplaced pitches led to a aberrant homer rate. Put him in Tropicana Field, and his homer rate should come down to regular levels. Combine that with the Rays’ strong infield defense, and Bell should be set to improve noticeably both in home runs and hits allowed, and if Bell adds in improved command, he could be primed for a return to glory. Even if everything does not click for Bell, though, is health and his new environment should lead to a solid season–his 4.11 ERA from 2013 could be a realistic worst-case scenario (with park factors certainly a reason for that). Maybe Bell does not morph back into an excellent closer, but the Rays can be pretty confident they will get a good season from Bell if not a great one. Paying $5.5 million for such a player may not be the price you want to pay, but when doing so comes along with a significant upgrade at catcher in Hanigan, it does not seem so bad at all.

Rather than make a straight prospect-for-player deal for Ryan Hanigan, the Tampa Bay Rays ended up having to take three different leaps of faith: on Bell and his contract, on Choate amounting to nothing, and on the potential of the player they have yet to deal to the Diamondbacks. However, all three of those gambles are low-risk, especially in light of Hanigan’s ability, and the Rays could certainly do worse than acquiring Bell as their latest relief project. While the situation is not ideal, the Rays saw nothing to prevent them from making this deal happen. This trade is no steal for the Rays, but they did not let few minor risks faze them as they acquired the type of starting catcher they have been waiting to acquire for far too long.