Bell Rumors Mean Marlins Falling For Expensive Closers

I hate to say it, but sometimes I miss the Marlins' cheap ways. One thing I was concerned about this offseason was that the Fish would abandon smart spending in favor of throwing money at players for money's sake. One of the things the team has always done well was to build a bullpen on the cheap, mostly because they had to. Instead of depending on signings to improve the quality of the pen, the club dug out free agents from the scrap heap and threw them into the fray, hoping to find useful parts. For the most part, they have succeeded, as evidenced by their bullpen work since 2008.

Marlins Bullpe ERA (Rank) FIP (Rank)
2011 3.44 (7) 3.62 (8)
2010 4.01 (17) 4.08 (19)
2009 3.89 (11) 4.07 (10)
2008 4.06 (12) 4.28 (17)

In only one of the past four years were the Marlins unequivocally below average in terms of bullpen, and the remaining three seasons the team was either middle-of-the-pack or among the top ten pens in the league. Last season, the Marlins built a top-ten bullpen with minimal investment by acquiring decent pitchers and playing them in proper roles. In addition, the Marlins will be returning the majority of the significant contributors from last season's pen, with the lone exception of Juan Carlos Oviedo departing.

So when news of the Marlins' serious interest in Ryan Madson broke, I was sorely disappointed. And now this bit of news regarding another free agent closer in Heath Bell has come out, courtesy of Joe Frisaro of MLB.com.

Confirmed the #Marlins indeed have strong interest in Heath Bell. Winter Meetings shaping up to be active.
Dec 01 via webFavoriteRetweetReply

This corroborates a report by Jon Heyman of Sports Illustrated saying that the Fish have interest (H/T MLB Trade Rumors) and one by Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports that said that the Marlins are among three teams interested (H/T MLB Daily Dish).

Unfortunately, it sounds as though my fears are coming true, as the Marlins appear to be yet another team willing to throw needless money at a good pitcher who will be undoubtedly overpaid for his role.

Evaluating and Valuing Bell

Don't get me wrong. I believe Heath Bell is a very good pitcher. I mean, I don't really need to "believe" it per se, as the numbers bear that out fairly well.

Bell IP K% BB% ERA FIP
2011 62 2/3 19.9 8.2 2.44 3.23
2010 70 30.0 9.8 1.93 2.05
2009 69 2/3 28.4 8.6 2.71 2.42
2009-2011 202 1/3 26.3 8.9 2.36 2.54

If there was a closer that deserved the eventual payday he would receive, one would imagine that it would be Bell. Since he arrived in San Diego in 2008, the Padres closer has been nothing but stellar. There is no doubt that over the last three seasons, he has been among the elite relievers in baseball. But evaluating Heath Bell is rather simple, as he is unequivocally good. The problem is when you attempt to value his good production at the role of closer.

Bell IP fWAR rWAR WARP
2011 62 2/3 0.5 1.7 0.7
2010 70 2.4 2.4 1.9
2009 69 2/3 2.0 2.1 1.7
2009-2011 202 1/3 5.1 6.2 4.3

There lies the problem. If you look at relievers through the eyes of Wins Above Replacement metrics, you would see that the market overvalues top closers and pays them like above average starting pitchers rather than average starters. And yet the Marlins are set to go the route of paying the market-set value for a closer with money that they only recently acquired.

Now, this does not necessarily mean that Wins Above Replacement metrics accurate evaluate relievers. I too am a little concerned about the consistent gap in valuation and whether the numbers are missing what many general managers and talent evaluators are seeing in closers. However, when looking at the logical structure of WAR metrics in evaluating relievers, it is difficult to argue:

- Relievers, like starters, are first judged by a run metric of choice that attempts to separate a defense component from pitching, with each of the above WAR metrics using a different choice to accomplish this.

- They then give the pitcher credit for some of the leverage in which he pitches; that is, the reliever gets half of the credit for pitching in a more important situation because of the way relievers are replaced in case of injury*.

*For more information on the concept of reliever chaining, check out this well-explained 2009 article by my former Beyond the Box Score boss Sky Kalkman.

- He is then compared to a "replacement level" reliever. The replacement level for a reliever is higher than that for a starter, and this makes inherent sense, as it is more difficult to be a starter than a reliever. The bullpen guys do not get as much slack.

As a result, even though Bell has been one of the best relievers in baseball, the combination of Petco Park and the valuing method for relievers makes it so that he is, based on an average of the above metrics, somewhere around a two-WAR player going into 2012.

How Much Would You Pay?

We have not yet heard a value for Bell's expected contract, but we can guess based on FanGraphs' contract crowdsourcing results and the deal that fellow reliever Jonathan Papelbon signed with the Philadelphia Phillies. The Phillies gave Papelbon a four-year, $50 million deal to close for them. This comes out to $12.5 million per season. The FanGraphs readership guessed that Papelbon would earn $11.5 million annually, meaning they were off by around nine percent. In the linked results column, author Carson Cistulli mentioned that the readership may be undershooting free agents by about 12 to 13 percent annually, so this should not surprise.

Now let us take a look at Bell. The FanGraphs readers projected a deal of at least three years and $9.6 million annually. Assuming they were off by about nine percent like in the case of Papelbon, this means that the Marlins would have to sign Bell to a three-year deal worth $10.5 million annually or $31.5 million total. If our two-WAR projection for 2012 holds true and he performs at that rate for the life of the deal, we could be paying $5.25 million per win for Bell's production.

Consider that this sort of deal would be similar in value to the deal we would expect Mark Buehrle to sign; Buehrle could go for three years and anywhere between $33 million (FanGraphs projected) to $39 million total. Given that Buehrle has been worth about 3.5 WAR every season (averaging 3.4 WAR over the last three seasons when taking the average of each of the three WAR metrics), the Marlins would be paying him almost $4 million per win if he were to maintain that production throughout a three-year deal. Considering the proximity of the two salaries and the likelihood that the Marlins can only make two major signings this offseason, which player would you rather have?

The Returning Cast

This does not even consider the fact that the Fish will be returning the majority of a decent bullpen from the 2011 season. Among regulars who should be back by Spring Training, Jose Ceda, Steve Cishek, Randy Choate, Michael Dunn, Edward Mujica, and Ryan Webb figure to play prominent roles next season. It is no guarantee that all of those guys will be successful, but as a unit they were decent last year, and even with some regression we would suspect that they could hold together a league average bullpen. While the addition of Bell or any other elite reliever would certainly make the team better, it would also unnecessarily patch up a good unit and waste money the team could be using to fill other, more urgent needs.

The Marlins are clearly concerned about a lack of a "proven closer" at the tail end of the pen, but they do have a reliever who has seen success fairly recently in Edward Mujica.

Mujica IP K% BB% ERA FIP
2009 93 2/3 19.3 4.8 3.94 4.03
2010 69 2/3 26.9 2.2 3.62 3.88
2011 76 21.2 4.7 2.96 3.20
2009-2011 239 1/3 22.0 4.1 3.53 3.72

Sure, he is not remotely as good as Bell, but his significant improvement last season bodes decently for the future, and it was not as if he was rescued from the scrap heap recently. Three years of decent play, with the most successful season being the latest, is enough to warrant at least a look for the closer role for a team that has multiple holes to fill and is still limited in funds to a degree. Mujica will make a projected $1.6 million next season and isn't likely to be more than a win worse than Bell if you use WAR, so why not utilize a cheaper flyer option rather than going for a sure-fire bet in Bell that will cost significantly more money?

The Marlins are a team with many holes to fill, and their newfound money with which to play is perfect to plug those holes with legitimate major leaguers. There should be no reason for the team to use up the limited bonus resources that they have on a three-year deal for a closer that may turn out to be meaningless if the team is not in contention. Multi-year expensive deals for relievers are something the Phillies and their deep pockets may be able to afford, but even if the Marlins go up to a league-average payroll in the years to come, they still will not be able to dole out one-tenth of their available money to a reliever who will throw 70 innings in a season on average. This move would be a mistake.

What do you Fish Stripers think? Would you approve of paying $10 million or more for an elite reliever like Bell?

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