Non-Hype Prospect – Heath Bell
It is often said that Americans love the narrative of the underdog. That is only partially true: the whole world loves the underdog. We root for the upset; we root for the improbable; we root for the statistically improbable. There’s nothing the world loves more than David taking out Goliath (unless, of course, we have Goliath on our fantasy team). The prospect equivalent to David is the undrafted free agent. A player so undesired, whose desire to play professional baseball is so unrequited, that no team values them highly enough to say their name on a conference call. Many of these players are signed and never make it out of A ball, but a select few make the show and become stars including, but not limited to, Larry Bowa, Kevin Mitchell, Bobby Bonilla, and Jim Leyritz.
Much has been made about how Mike Piazza was drafted in the 62nd round in 1988, but he was drafted (albeit as a favor to his father by his godfather, Tommy Lasorda). The subject of this article is three-time All-Star Heath Bell, a pitcher who placed 8th in the 2010 National League Cy Young Award vote. Despite lettering in football, basketball, and baseball while attending Tustin High School in Tustin, California, Bell failed to impress scouts and was not drafted. Bell attended Santiago Canyon College and was named a freshman All-American in 1997. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays selected Bell in the 69th Round of the 1997 draft. The 69th round had a total of three picks (neither of which appeared to play any professional baseball at any point), the final of which was Bell. Bell didn’t sign with the Devil Rays and made two appearances for the El Dorado Broncos in the National Baseball Congress World Series. Alas, Bell was not drafted in 1998 and signed with the New York Mets as an undrafted free agent in 1998.
Bell impressed from the start, a 2.54 ERA and 61 strike outs in 22 games (46 innings) at Kingsport of the Rookie Level Appalachian League in 1998 earned him a promotion to the Mets full season A affiliate for 1999, the South Atlantic League’s Capital City Bombers. In Capital City, Bell put up a 2.60 ERA with 68 strikeouts across 62.1 innings. In 2000, Bell appeared in 48 games for the St. Lucie Mets, the Mets’ affiliate in the High A Florida State League. In St. Lucie, Bell continued to excel, striking out 75 in 60 innings while putting up a sparkling 2.55 ERA.
Bell hit his first bump in 2001, when he was promoted to the Mets’ affiliate in the Eastern League, the Binghamton Mets. Bell appeared in 43 games, striking out 55 and putting up a 6.02 ERA. Bell returned to Binghamton in 2002 and put up an electric 1.18 ERA while striking out 49 in 38 innings. Bell was promoted to the Norfolk Tides, the Mets AAA affiliate in the International League, and pitched reasonably well, putting up a 4.26 ERA with 28 strike outs in 31.2 innings. In 2003, Bell put up a lackluster 4.71 ERA at Norfolk, while striking out 44 in 49.2 innings. After the season, it was revealed that Bell had a stress fracture in his right arm that Mets team doctors failed to diagnose.
After one two-inning appearance in Binghamton to start 2004, Bell was promoted to Norfolk, where he put up a 3.12 ERA with 68 strikeouts in 55.2 innings, earning Bell a September call up to the Mets where he put up a respectable 3.33 ERA with 27 strikeouts across 24.1 innings. In 2005, Bell began riding the “Heath Bell Express”, as he was shuttled between AAA Norfolk and New York as the Mets whenever the Mets needed another bullpen arm. Bell put up a 1.69 ERA in Norfolk and a 5.59 ERA for the Mets. Bell clashed with Mets’ Pitching Coach Rick Peterson, who put the kibosh on Bell’s weight-losing in-line skating that helped him lose weight during spring training. In 2006, Bell resumed riding the “Heath Bell Express” as he put up a 1.29 ERA in Norfolk and a 5.11 ERA for the Mets.
In mid-November, the Mets dealt Heath Bell and Royce Ring to the San Diego Padres for Ben Johnson and Jon Adkins. Acquiring Bell paid immediate dividends for the Padres. After putting up a 2.02 ERA over 93.2 innings in 2007, Bell put up a 3.58 ERA over 78 innings in 2008. In 2009, longtime Padres closer Trevor Hoffman signed with the Milwaukee Brewers and Bell became the closer, racking up a National League-leading 42 saves to go with his sparkling 2.71 ERA. Bell’s success has continued, as he put up 47 saves to go with a 1.93 ERA in 2010 followed by 43 saves and a 2.44 ERA in 2011.
After the 2011 season, Bell became a free agent for the first time and signed a three-year contract worth $27 million (with a vesting option for a fourth year worth another $9 million based upon games finished) with the
Florida Miami Marlins. While Bell has not been perfect to start the season (or, even, particularly good), there is no reason to suspect Bell will be anything other than the top-tier closer that he has been for the past three seasons. On a personal note, I must say I am happy for him. I always felt that the Mets misused him, though some of that may have been a result of his outspoken ways, as first reported in an article by Tim Kurkjian:
“Everything in New York was so serious,” Bell said. “I should keep my mouth shut, but I never do. In 2005, I didn’t pitch for 28 straight days. I don’t know if I did something to Willie [Randolph, then the manager of the Mets]. I didn’t always get along with [then pitching coach] Rick Peterson. I don’t know if they wanted to make me the scapegoat. It was a bad situation. I was an undrafted player. I was a walk-on. I was the last guy to get to the big leagues. I came in with [former manager] Art Howe, then went to Willie. I was with [former general manager] Steve Phillips, then [former GM] Jim Duquette, then [current general manager] Omar Minaya. No one really saw me. But they heard about me in the papers.”
Alas, the first question is: What happened? How did every team miss on Bell (twice, as he was not drafted in the 1998 draft)? The answer is that drafting baseball players is incredibly difficult and the level of play between high school and college are an ocean away from the level of play in the major leagues. This difference of play requires scouts to make projections about players four to six years into the future, a difficult task at best. The Mets should get credit for giving Bell a chance, but should be severely dinged for the fact that, once he showed the ability to thoroughly dominate AAA, never giving Bell a chance to succeed at the major league level. Further, former Mets General Manager Omar Minaya should be excoriated for his trades prior to the 2007 season. Dealing Bell and Royce Ring to the Padres for non-factors Ben Johnson and Jon Adkins was just the start of the problem. Minaya continued by dealing relievers Henry Owens and Matt Lindstrom to the Marlins for Jason Vargas and Adam Bostick (which would have worked out well had Minaya not dealt the solid Vargas to the Seattle Mariners in the ill-fated J.J. Putz deal), then dealing reliever Brian Bannister for Ambiorix Burgos, who pitched poorly, got hurt, then committed a number of crimes (assaulting his girlfriend, hit an run, then kidnapping and poisoning his ex-wife).
The second question is: How did Bell figure it out? Clearly the Mets felt Bell was little more than a middle reliever or, possibly even gave bell the dreaded 4A label. Maybe Bell was better than the Mets believed, but I feel that Bell learned a lot from one of the greatest closers of all time, Trevor Hoffman. As Bell put it:
“Trevor taught me a lot, including, ‘let’s have fun,'” Bell said. “He taught me that we have to be serious, but we’re allowed to have fun before and after games. Before the position players arrive every spring, the pitchers play games with comebackers [balls hit back to the box] and we play a game where we hit in the cage with fungos. It’s fun. San Diego has allowed me to be me. When the game starts, I want to tear your head off, but I’m one of the nicest guys I know. In Philadelphia last year, a fan screamed at me from the stands, ‘How many cheesesteaks did you have today, four?’ I yelled back, ‘Only three, why don’t you get me a fourth?’ Another guy yelled, ‘Hey, fatso.’ I yelled back, ‘Tell me something I don’t know. C’mon, this is Philly, you’re supposed to be better hecklers than that.'”
In the end, Heath Bell made it his own way and we should all be rooting for him, the true underdog.
Until next time, follow me @HypeProspect.