The Rays did some wheeling and dealing on Wednesday, acquiring both reliever Heath Bell and catcher Ryan Hanigan in a three-way, five-player trade involving the Diamondbacks and Reds. Both Bell and Hanigan are coming off disappointing 2013 seasons, but it appears that they fit into Tampa Bay's never-ending quest to find value.
Bell is the biggest name in the deal. The 36-year-old righty spent 2013 with the Diamondbacks, pitching 65 2/3 innings with a 4.11 ERA and 15 saves. While his strikeout and walk rates were strong (9.2 and 2.2 per nine, respectively), he struggled to keep the ball in the park, yielding a rate of 1.6 homers per nine, more than double his career mark. The 12 homers he allowed tied for the second-highest total among relievers, one off the 13 served up by Houston's Paul Clemens.
Bell will be pitching for his fourth team in four years, and his third since signing a three-year, $27 million deal with the Marlins in December 2011. His stay in Florida was a disappointing one, as he was rocked for a 5.09 ERA and saved just 19 games for Miami, the last of them on July 6 before losing the closers's job for good. Traded to Arizona in a three-way deal that also included the A's on Oct. 20, 2012, he began the year setting up J.J. Putz, then took over closing chores in early May when Putz went on the disabled list; Bell went 14-for-18 in save opportunities before yielding to Brad Ziegler just before the All-Star break. He pitched reasonably well in a setup role in the second half, with a 3.56 ERA and a 33/5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 30 1/3 innings. For his 10-year career with the Mets, Padres, Marlins and Diamondbacks, he has a 3.39 ERA and 9.2 strikeouts per nine.
In Tampa Bay, Bell is expected to battle Joel Peralta, Juan Carlos Oviedo and Jake McGee for the ninth-inning job, with the Rays hoping that they can work similar magic on him as they did on Kyle Farnsworth in 2011 and Fernando Rodney in '12, turning yet another erratic reliever into a stud closer while paying significantly less than the market rate for one. While his $9 million salary for 2014 is the second-highest among relievers behind only Jonathan Papelbon — at least until Joe Nathan signs — Tampa Bay will be paying only $5.5 million of that, according to USA Today's Bob Nightengale. The amount may actually be slightly less, as Cot's Contracts previously reported that the Marlins were on the hook for $4 million of his 2014 salary. In any event, it's still a significant expenditure for a team that had just a $61.9 million Opening Day payroll in 2013. Also worth noting is that Bell has a $9 million vesting option for 215 that kicks in if he finishes 55 games, although that's something he hasn't done since 2010, when he was with San Diego.
As for Hanigan, the 33-year-old righty-swinging backstop is coming off a miserable year for Cincinnati in which he hit just .198/.306/.261 in 260 plate appearances, well below his career line of .262/.359/.343. That performance and his rising cost convinced the Reds to turn the position for 2014 over to former top prospect Devin Mesoraco and the recently-signed Brayan Pena. While Hanigan's isolated power and walk rates were in line with career norms, his batting average on balls in play was a meager .216, well off his .283 career mark. It seems quite reasonable to hope for a rebound in that department, though the Rays don't expect him to be a tremendous offensive force. Hanigan's career high for homers is six, back in 2011, and he has just 20 in 1,580 career plate appearances.
Tampa Bay is likely more attracted to Hanigan's defense than to his offense. In 2013, he threw out 45 percent of would-be base thieves, leading the NL for the second year in a row and allowing just 18 successful thefts in 72 games. For his career, his 40 percent rate of throwing out runners is second among active catchers behind only Yadier Molina; number three on the list is Molina's brother and Hanigan's new backstop partner, Jose Molina, at 38 percent.
Hanigan also has something else in common with his new teammate: he's one of the best in the game at pitch framing. According to Baseball Prospectus, the elder Molina led the majors with 33 Framing Runs Above Average in 2013, and while BP doesn't publish full statistics for the category, they noted that Hanigan finished in the top 10. The StatCorner Catcher Report, which apparently uses a different methodology, showed Hanigan tied for 13th in the majors at 8.3 runs above average after ranking in the top six in each of the previous four years — all of that despite only once starting more than 72 games in a season.
Neither catcher framing methodology is factored into any of the current Wins Above Replacement models, but it's fair to say that Hanigan's work in that department is enough to justify his modest salary. Upon acquiring him, the Rays signed him to a three-year, $10.75 million extension covering his final year of arbitration eligibility and what would have been his first two years of free agency. Having just re-signed Molina to a two-year, $4.5 million deal, they're set at catcher for the next couple of seasons and will likely look to trade switch-hitter Jose Lobaton, who started 76 games and hit .249/.320/.394 with seven home runs in 311 plate appearances for the Rays, but whose defense isn't in the same class as the other two.
Elsewhere in the deal, the Reds get 22-year-old lefty David Holmberg from the Diamondbacks, Arizona gets 22-year-old righty Justin Choate from the Rays and the D-backs will receive cash or a player to be named later from Tampa Bay. Holmberg, a 2009 second-round pick by the White Sox, spent 2013 at Double A Mobile, where in 157 1/3 innings he delivered a 2.75 ERA while striking out 6.6 per nine; he also made one spot start for Arizona. Prior to the season, Baseball America ranked him No. 6 on the Diamondbacks' Top 10 Prospects list. Choate, a nondrafted free agent who made his professional debut in 2013, pitched to a 2.88 ERA with 7.7 strikeouts per nine in 40 2/3 innings with Low A Hudson Valley, all of it out of the bullpen. In all, this deal doesn't exactly qualify as a blockbuster. Hanigan and Bell were both deemed expendable by their teams due to their 2013 performances and their cost. Even so, they offer the Rays reasonable upside if they can return to their career norms. Time and again, Tampa Bay has shown that it can turn other teams' trash into its own treasure, not just with regard to Farnsworth and Rodney but also Casey Kotchman, James Loney, Jeff Keppinger and others. Don't be surprised if that approach works again.