Ken Rosenthal wrote yesterday that it was imperative that the Padres trade closer Heath Bell this month. He outlined three options the team has remaining to them, since Bell was not dealt prior to July 31:
1) Sign Bell to a contract extension, which the team has declined to do even though Bell has said he is willing to accept a steep discount.
2) Trade Bell during the August waiver period and receive an even lesser return than was available before the July 31 non-waiver deadline.
3) Keep Bell and offer him salary arbitration to ensure draft-pick compensation if he leaves as a free agent, a decision that could backfire on the club in multiple ways.
Rosenthal felt #2 was the obvious choice, as the other two doors could lead to issues for San Diego. There are problems with this, though.
For one, it's the worst-case scenario outlined for each option, and second, if the Padres weren't willing to move Bell for the package they would receive in return prior to July 31, they probably aren't going to change their minds in August, when their leverage, options, and expected return will all be worse.
Point #1 is also misleading, as team owner Jeff Moorad is on the record as saying the Padres would like to re-sign Bell for two years, just not three as Bell has requested; it's not that the Padres have declined to re-sign Bell, it's just that they haven't reached an agreement that works for both parties. Given it's August, and the team was just attempting to trade him less than a week ago, that's a total non-surprise. Bell's repeated insistence he would sign for a discount in order to stay in San Diego shows he is willing to compromise in order to stay, and it's hard to believe the Padres would tell him to shoo were he also willing to lower his needs to two years.
As for point #3, Rosenthal is correct when he says arbitration could backfire if, when the new Collective Bargaining Agreement is negotiated and signed, draft-pick compensation is eliminated. The Padres might not get the two picks they would expect were Bell to sign with another team, and would then have nothing to show for Bell. At the same time, nothing is close to what they might receive were they to deal him this month -- both choices represent lottery tickets for San Diego, and it's arguable that the compensation pick route (or whatever new system is implemented to replace it) is the risk worth taking.
Plus, it would likely not even come to that -- Bell has said he would likely accept arbitration, and Moorad's response on San Diego radio station XX1090 was that arbitration "is even preferable from our point of view. We certainly don't mind going to year-to-year, though we are willing to guarantee a couple of years with him."
Bell's salary would be hefty relative to the low payroll of the Padres, and there is concern he has declined in 2011. Both of those issues are nowhere near as significant as they have been blown up to sound, though. Bell would likely receive upwards of $10 million in arbitration: he is at $7.5 million this year, and players generally make 60 percent of their perceived free-agent value in their second year of arb, 80 percent in their third year. That would likely account for 20-25 percent of the Padres' payroll. While it seems like an awful lot for a closer, Bell's salary accounts for 16 percent of the payroll this year, and that is less to blame for the lack of financial flexibility of the winter than, say, Ryan Ludwick's $6.8 million was, given the performance of the two.
The Padres have just $13.5 million in obligations next year, as Jason Bartlett and Orlando Hudson are the only two players under contract. The rest of the roster is arbitration eligible or pre-arb, and, except for Bell and possibly Tim Stauffer, not a single Padre is in line for a significant raise. There will be room on the payroll for one more year of Bell, even at $10 million, and it will also give them one more chance to deal him before July 31.
He should still be coveted in 2012; despite a dip in his strikeout rate to 6.9 per nine, his stuff is still there. Bell averaged 93.9 miles per hour on his fastball in 2010, and is at 93.7 this year. His curveball still has that tight, ridiculous movement, and has shown even more vertical drop this year. The low strikeout rate has more to do with reliever sample size than actual decline. He remains difficult to hit, regardless of venue, and at just 33 years old with his velocity and stuff intact, there is no reason to think 2012 will be any different.
If the Padres still want to get something for Bell, offering arbitration seems to be the way to go. Re-signing him for two years may seem odd given the Padres are rebuilding, but it's not like there will be coveted free agents banging down the door to come to play for a team restocking with prospects, either, and they still need an arm to anchor their bullpen -- the money will be there for Bell, and he will continue to earn it, whether it's for San Diego or the 2012 contender they may deal him to.