Rays' Bell likes idea of pitching for a contender
Former closer lands with Tampa Bay after ups and downs with Miami, Arizona
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Heath Bell has spent the last few years bouncing back and forth from coast to coast like a ping pong ball: from San Diego to Miami to Arizona and now to Tampa Bay.
"You'd think you'd sign a three-year deal and you'd stay in one place and not bounce around, but it's all right," the one-time right-handed closer told MLB.com on Friday in his new digs with the Rays at the Charlotte Sports Park. "Unfortunately I've been traded the last two years, but I keep going to better and better teams. The Rays are always in the playoffs so it's not a bad thing."
Bell left the Padres for the Marlins as a free agent after the 2011 season and signed that three-year contract worth $27 million with a $9 million vesting option for 2015. Bell earned that deal by saving 132 games for the Padres in the three seasons after Trevor Hoffman left for Milwaukee in a huff because of a contract dispute.
Bell struggled for the Marlins and the D-backs and hasn't regularly closed since his San Diego salad days. He said he's not sure what his role will be with the Rays, although evidently Tampa Bay hardly signed free-agent Grant Balfour to a two-year, $12 million deal for moral support.
"I expect to close," said Balfour, who did just that for the A's, saving 104 games the past three seasons, including 38 for the repeat American League West division champions last year. "At least I hope so. That's why I signed here."
"I've already declared that Balfour is the closer, so I'm getting that off the table," Rays manager Joe Maddon added unequivocally on Friday.
Here's a thumbnail of Bell's recent history:
He was going nowhere with the Mets when then Padres general manager Kevin Towers acquired him via a low-level trade in 2006. Bell developed in San Diego setting up for Hoffman and under the tutelage of the reliever with 601 lifetime saves. Manager Bud Black and pitching coach Darren Balsley created a strong support system for the entire pitching staff and Bell thrived.
After his move to Miami in 2012, Bell had mechanical issues closing for the Marlins. He had 19 saves for Miami, blew another eight and by midseason was summarily benched by then manager Ozzie Guillen. Bell was told to fend for himself. When that didn't work and after the highly-touted Marlins imploded in their new ballpark that season, an economic purge began and Bell's contract was traded to the D-backs, with the Marlins accounting for half of the money.
Towers, who basically invented Bell, was now Arizona's GM and he projected Bell as a viable option to incumbent closer J.J. Putz, who never seems to make it through a full season without injury. When Putz went on the disabled list early in 2013 because of a right elbow strain, Bell stepped into the breach and saved 13 games in 15 opportunities through May and June, thus stabilizing what turned out to be one of the worst bullpens in Major League Baseball.
But Bell pitched erratically after that and saved only two more games for the remainder of the season. After blowing four out of five second-half opportunities, he was used only eight times in various setup situations during the final month of the season as Brad Ziegler enjoyed some success closing.
And so it didn't really surprise Bell when he was traded this past Dec. 13 to Tampa Bay in a three-team deal that included the Reds and netted the D-backs a pair of Minor League players.
"I was a little surprised, but not too much because in September they stopped using me," Bell said. "It wasn't because they just wanted to use the kids. They were using me in the eighth inning and then all of a sudden I was pitching in really weird innings. I think the Rays were just interested in picking me up and K.T. [Towers] always says if there's a good deal out there he'll make a trade. It doesn't matter who it will be. Maybe I just didn't fit in their plans."
Evidently. Like several of the pitchers on the Arizona staff last year, Bell struggled to stay on the same page with manager Kirk Gibson and then pitching coach Charles Nagy, who was dismissed at the end of the season and replaced by Mike Harkey of the Yankees. Veteran guru Dave Duncan also was hired to oversee pitching in the entire D-backs system.
"My pitching style is a little different than most pitchers and most closers," Bell said. "I wanted to go out there and pitch my style. We didn't really see eye to eye after awhile. I always felt like I was trying to swim upstream. I try to mix up my pitches. Closers usually come in and pound the strike zone with fastballs. I have a good fastball, but not one that I can just blow by anybody.
"I like to go in and out, use both sides of the plate. I felt like they wanted me to go in a lot more. My style was more away, but I was trying to do their style. It was just tough. When the catcher and the pitcher really don't see eye to eye it's hard to go out there and have a really good game. They wanted me to pitch in a way I'd never pitched before."
All that is behind him now. But Bell, at 36, is undoubtedly on the cusp. The way the contract was structured by the Marlins, he earned $6 million in 2012 and $9 million in 2013 and now also in 2014. The $9 million option automatically vests if he finishes 55 games this season or 100 over the past two seasons. Bell finished only 32 games in 2013 so the 55-game figure this season is the target. If he doesn't close, there's little chance he'll reach that mark.
"Bell is interesting," Maddon said. "Right now he looks great. He's very motivated. What we'd like to do is set up pitchers in those higher leverage moments at the latter part of the game. We have several now and with that a chance to shorten up the game nicely. So the plans are to use him in the latter part of the game. The plans are to use him against the right guys."
That's just fine with Bell. At this point, he'll take whatever chance he's given. He's a San Diego native, whose family remains out west for most of the season. And although he harbors a desire to return to the Padres, he wouldn't mind finishing his career with the Rays, who once selected Bell out of high school in the 69th round of the 1997 First-Year Player Draft. Bell didn't sign, but he finally made it to Tampa to play his 11th big league season.
"Would I love to go back to San Diego? I would, but I'm with the Rays now," Bell said. "If I finish my career here in the next couple of years that would be awesome, too. You've got to love this organization. From the first day I walked in everyone was happy and smiling. It's a great clubhouse and you never want to leave a great clubhouse. Even if I live on the other side of the country in California, I'll be glad to make the drive to Florida every year."
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.