Around the NL East: Heath Bell, Jose Reyes Sign with the Marlins

With the annual Winter Meetings kicking off today in Dallas, one of the biggest free agents available is now off the board as we learned late last night that the Miami Marlins have agreed to sign shortstop Jose Reyes to a six year, $106 Million contract. The team also signed free agent closer Heath Bell to a three year, $27 Million contract late last Thursday. That makes two significant signings within a one week span, taking advantage of opposing franchises with limited financial flexibility and an as-yet-undefined market for two of the more sought after free agent options this winter.

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The Marlins have long expected to be a major player in the free agent market this offseason, considering the team opens a new stadium in the Spring and is expecting a new source of revenue to infuse the ball club, but there were some within the industry that believed they weren’t serious about their aggressive free agent pursuits. That speculation can now be put to an end as within a week the Marlins have proven they are serious about improving their team for 2012 and beyond.

Bell’s situation was a little different than for some of the other free agent closers. A top target at last July’s trade deadline, the San Diego Padres elected to hold onto their All Star closer rather than deal him for prospects, in part because they would get additional draft picks should Bell leave via free agency. However, with the changes recently made to the CBA that no longer holds true*. With the organization’s unwillingness to expand beyond a two year contract, and the offer presented by Miami, it was no surprise to see Bell leave despite repeated statements that his preference all along was to remain a Padre.

* According to the guys at MLBTR, San Diego will still receive a pick as compensation in the 1st Supplemental Round. However, instead of receiving Miami’s 2nd Round pick, San Diego will receive an extra pick which will fall directly before that Miami selection. Miami no longer loses the draft pick because they signed Bell as a free agent. 

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Bell has been one of the top closers in all of baseball, despite a seemingly stunted delivery that often causes me to wonder how he is such an effective pitcher, since he replaced Trevor Hoffman in the role three years ago. Over that time he has pitched a total of 202.1 innings in 199 appearances, saving 132 games with a 2.36 ERA and 9.6 K/9. He’s been selected to each of the past three All Star Games and finished 8th in National League Cy Young Award voting after the 2010 season. He’s also been reliable, having appeared in 64+ games each of the past five seasons.

The deal is reportedly for three years, $27 Million which works out to a nice clean $9 Million per season. There is also a vesting option for a 4th year, again at $9 Million.

With Bell taking over the closer’s role in Miami, and strengthening what is a relatively inexperienced bullpen, the team no longer has to be concerned over whom will finish games considering the as-yet-unresolved concerns surrounding Juan Carlos Oviedo. As you likely recall, Oviedo admitted in September that he had falsified documentation when first signing with the Marlins – using a false identity (Leo Nunez) to both agree to a contract with the team and to apply for the necessary visas to play professionally here in the US. The entire situation has yet to be resolved, though I don’t expect we’ll see Oviedo pitch in the Major Leagues this coming season, if ever again.

Now, with the signing of Reyes, the Marlins have also been able to solidify and strengthen their lineup. Despite missing about two weeks’ worth of games in mid-August due to yet another nagging injury, Reyes had arguably the best offensive season of his career in 2011. In 124 games he made 586 plate appearances, batting .337/.384/.493 with 7 HR and 44 RBI. The .337 batting average was not only a career high for Reyes, but marked the shortstop’s first batting title. He also stole 39 bases, hit 31 doubles, and led the league with 16 triples.

Over the course of his nine year career Reyes is a .292/.341/.441 hitter in just under 5,000 career plate appearances. He averages about 12 HR and 65 RBI a season, fair production from the shortstop position. While no longer the same stolen base threat, Reyes also averages 57 steals a season (those numbers are still largely affected by his early career success rates, 60+ steals each year from 2005-2007). He’s been selected to four All Star Games and won the Silver Slugger in 2006. Durability has been a concern, however, as he hasn’t played in more than 135 games since the 2008 season.

Once again, the Marlins were able to take advantage of a market hindered by an opposing organization’s troubled (or limited) financial state. The New York Mets were unable (or unwilling) to make a stronger push to resign Reyes because we still don’t truly know the extent to which the team’s finances were affected by the Wilpons associating with Bernie Madoff. Few expected the Mets to end up bringing the shortstop back, but it was widely believed they’d at least put up a better fight than it would seem they did. It was no secret that they were wary of paying Reyes “Carl Crawford money” but it would seem, at least to some degree, that they didn’t put in a full effort when it came to retaining one of their premier homegrown talents. Reports have the team’s highest offer in the vicinity of five years, $75-80 Million. Of course, after the signing was announced by the Marlins and Reyes’ representatives, sources within the Mets’ front office were claiming that the team was prepared to increase their offer, adding a sixth year option that would bring the total value close to $100 Million, but they were never given the chance to respond to Miami’s latest proposal.

That proposal, which Reyes has agreed to, is a six year, $106 Million contract (roughly $17.67 Million per season). Reports say there is also an option for a 7th year, which if declined will still pay Reyes a $4 Million buyout.

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One additional part of the Reyes signing that cannot be overlooked is the affect on the current Marlins infield, specifically on Hanley Ramirez – the team’s current shorstop. Ramirez, for what it’s worth, still has three years and $46.5 Million remaining on his contract. Over his seven season career he is a .306/.380/.506 hitter in just under 4,000 plate appearances. Ramirez averages roughly 25 HR, 83 RBI, and 41 stolen bases per season. Yet, this past season he too was hurt, playing in only 92 games. He struggled at the plate to a .243/.333/.379 line in 385 plate appearances. He hit just 10 HR with 45 RBI and 20 stolen bases.

The eventuality of moving Ramirez away from shortstop is something that anyone who has watched the Marlins over the years has seen coming. While a solid defender, Ramirez almost seems too big for the position at times and almost seems to get in his own way despite being an athletic fielder. Some have speculated that a move to center field could be the most logical choice, but it is widely believed that after the Reyes signing Ramirez will just slide over to third base. Rumor has it that Ramirez has not been fond of the idea of switching positions, but he doesn’t seem like the type of player who will make those frustrations a public spectacle.

With Reyes and Ramirez comprising the left side of the Marlins infield (though I’m curious how this affects the progression of third base prospect Matt Dominguez – who is now blocked), and likely sharing the top of the lineup, the Marlins are going to be able to boast a better lineup this coming season. With Bell added to the back of the bullpen they have become stronger there as well. I’ve been saying for weeks that the NL East is quietly becoming one of the toughest divisions in baseball when you view the Braves, Phillies, Nationals, and Marlins as a whole. The Marlins just got better over the past few days, and it will be interesting to see how the remainder of the division responds.

Tags: Heath Bell Jose Reyes Miami Marlins Washington Nationals

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