Nearly every trade deadline in recent memory has produced a significant number of deals involving relief pitching.
The combination of contenders seeking additional bullets in close games and cellar-dwellars anxious to stockpile cheaper and younger talent leads to a shakeup amongst bullpens throughout every division in baseball.
Often, the most highly-desired commodities are proven middle-relief arms who can add depth and experience while solidifying a certain "spot" in the game.
Far less often, however, does the trade deadline produce a deal involving an elite closer who can single-handedly shift a bullpen from an area of concern to one of great strength. This trend is almost certain to reverse itself this year thanks to the presence of San Diego Padres closer Heath Bell.
With an anemic offense that has been shut out 11 times this season and ranks last in the majors in runs scored, San Diego will be hard-pressed to make a push to the top of the NL West. The bullpen is unquestionably the strongest part of the team (2.35 ERA), and while Bell is a major reason for its success, he is far from alone. Righthanders Luke Gregerson (2.63 ERA) and Mike Adams (1.21 ERA) are seen by scouts as capable replacements for Bell in the closer role and come with significantly cheaper price tags. Both pitchers are under team control through the 2012 season while Bell's one-year, $7.5 million deal expires at season's end. He has publicly stated a desire to sign a three-year deal, likely approaching $10 million per season.
San Diego has the third-lowest payroll in the majors this season at $45.9 million and is quite unlikely to stretch its budget any further in the foreseeable future. In his evaluation of the Padres 2012 budget, Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors estimates that in addition to payroll obligations of $13 million, the Padres 14 arbitration-eligible players will cost the club approximately $25 million. That leaves almost no wiggle room, let alone space for a player seeking an eight-figure salary. San Diego is a quintessential smart market team, and as we have seen with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Kansas City Royals, and several others over the past few years, the "little guys" must strike while the iron is hot and deal their increasingly-expensive commodities when they are most in-demand.
Now for the interesting part: Where might Mr. Bell end up after the deadline?
He is almost certain to go to a contender who can afford to pay almost half of his $7.5 million salary for a half-year rental. Here are several viable teams to whom Bell could be dealt:
This rumor has been floating around for over a month now and appears strange at first glimpse. The Rangers possess a dominant young closer in Neftali Feliz and when healthy are the clear class of the American League West. But to compete with the rest of the American League, namely Boston and New York, the Rangers must solidify the eight-inning role. Darren Oliver has been solid once again this year (2.96 ERA in 26 appearances) but is 40 years old. Mark Lowe is a decent right-handed option but has a long history of injuries. Arthur Rhodes, age 41, has been hit hard this season (5.28 ERA) and has been crushed by the Yankees during his career (7.52 ERA in 55 games). With several impact prospects at or just below the major league level, the Rangers have the pieces to entice San Diego. Feliz has pitched quite well in his limited time in the majors, helping the Rangers to the American League pennant in 2010. Yet he experiences frequent bouts of wildness (14/12 BB/K, 3 blown saves this season) and is viewed by Texas as a future member of its starting rotation. The Rangers have a payroll that could potentially handle Bell's contract demands and could concievably seek to re-sign him at season's end as a long-term closer.
New York Yankees
Another contending team for which Bell could serve as a reliable eighth inning arm, New York is a notoriously-active deadline dealer and will spare no expense for a player it believes can solidify an area of weakness heading into the stretch run. The rotation has question marks in the fourth and fifth spots, but general manager Brian Cashman may consider Bell a sure-fire bet in the 8th inning. The off-season signing of Rafael Soriano was supposed to create a reliable bridge to Mariano Rivera, but that experiment has failed miserably to this point. Right-handed David Robertson has been fantastic thus far (1.37 ERA, 43 K in 26 IP) but does not have a proven track record. This one is definitely a long shot, but the Yankees can never be counted out when an impact player is available for the final few months of the season.
On paper, this makes the most sense. Detroit has the second-worst bullpen ERA in baseball at 4.80 and finds itself in an extremely winnable division. The Cleveland Indians have fallen back to Earth after a torrid start and the Chicago White Sox cannot establish any semblance of consistency. The Minnesota Twins are playing well in June, but put themselves in a deep-hole with a deplorable first two months of the season. The Tigers possess the starting pitching and offense to run away with the division, but a shaky bullpen makes that a risky proposition. Current closer Jose Valverde has been excellent, but Joaquin Benoit, signed in the offseason to a 3-year, $16.5 million deal, has struggled mightily with a 5.40 ERA. His exceedingly high .351 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) and low 59.7% strand rate suggests he has been very unlucky, but the Tigers may not be willing to wait for his numbers to stabilize. With a $105 million payroll, the Tigers should be able to shell out the approximately $3 million to acquire Bell for the duration of the season. Unlike Texas and New York, however, Detroit has a depleted farm system and might not have the prospects sought by the Padres.
Other teams who could make inquires include the St. Louis Cardinals, Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, and Los Angeles Angels. Among those four contenders, Chicago seems like the most viable candidate given general manager Kenny Williams' penchant for orchestrating deals at the deadline and the tenuous status of the bullpen. Like Detroit, however, Chicago has a barren farm system that might not be able to withstand the loss of top-level talent in exchange for a rental player.
Among pitchers, Bell is the most notable name currently swirling in the June rumor winds. His presence in a setup or closing role immediately alters the balance of power in any division or pennant race. It is possible, though very unlikely, that San Diego does not receive an offer it considers compelling enough and decides to hold Bell until the end of the season, when he would likely decline arbitration and subsequently net the Padres two first round picks as a Type A free agent.