Are Marlins about ready to close the door on Heath Bell?
David LennonDavid Lennon
David Lennon has been a staff writer for Newsday since
If Hanley Ramirez was symbolic of the Marlins' past failures, then Heath Bell is next in line to take the blame for their most recent mistakes as well as the problems awaiting them in the future.
Bell was the first signing of Miami's mega-million makeover during the offseason. And if the Marlins feel the need to continue to clean house after this season, Bell likely will be the first one out the door, too.
The only thing worse than an underperforming $27-million closer is one who also irritates those around him, and Bell's situation is growing more uncomfortable by the day in Miami.
On Wednesday, during the Marlins' visit to Citi Field, Bell had a lengthy conversation with reporters about how he "fixed himself" without the help of the coaching staff and said he believes it's time for him to return to the closer's role. When the handful of reporters dispersed, Bell grinned.
"I'm going to hear about that one," he said, knowing full well that the comments would tweak manager Ozzie Guillen and his staff.
Unlike Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle -- the other two-thirds of Miami's offseason rebuilding efforts -- Bell hasn't been bending over backward to insist he made the right choice in signing a three-year deal with the Marlins. When asked this past week about the deadline chatter that had him coming back to Queens in a bad-money swap for Jason Bay, let's just say Bell wasn't averse to the idea.
But that's to be expected. While Reyes has shaken off his sluggish start with a 26-game hitting streak and Buehrle has a 3.70 ERA despite a 9-10 record, Bell was stripped of his closer's role after three straight All-Star seasons in San Diego.
That's tough to digest, and even after Guillen suggested Thursday that Bell would be returning as the closer, Bell didn't sound ready to believe him. That same afternoon, Bell was called on to pitch the seventh inning with the Marlins trailing 5-1. He promptly gave up three hits and a run.
So where did it all go wrong for Bell? He's heard everything from weight gain -- Bell insists that's not the case -- to not using his breaking pitches enough. Before Thursday, however, Bell looked as though he indeed was fixed, as he had assured everyone.
Since a July 8 blown save that resulted in his removal as closer, Bell had not allowed a run in 10 consecutive appearances, in nine innings, and opponents batted .107 against him.
The secret? Bell said it was in his stride. By shortening it as little as three to four inches -- again, something he discovered on his own -- Bell was able to get on top of his pitches and better keep the ball down in the strike zone.
"In the first half, I stunk," said Bell, who had a 6.75 ERA and was 19-for-25 in save chances before the All-Star break. "I don't want to say I was the worst pitcher in the game, but I was making a run for it."
Bell also had 20 walks in 342/3 innings to go with his 32 strikeouts, and opponents were ripping him for a .307 average. Could it be that the pressure of closing for the high-profile Marlins, the preseason favorite to win the NL East, had an effect on him after his move from sedate San Diego?
"No," Bell said. "There's nothing to do with that."
His time with the Mets was not quite as turbulent, but it was nearly as confusing. Bell clashed with then-pitching coach Rick Peterson, and he still bristles when he recalls going unused in the bullpen for 27 days during September 2005.
After Bell bounced back and forth between the majors and Norfolk, the Mets finally traded him to the Padres, along with Royce Ring, for the forgettable duo of Ben Johnson and Jon Adkins. Bell stayed bitter toward the Mets during his successful San Diego years, but he speaks affectionately of his Flushing tenure now.
Is a reunion still possible? Given the Mets' chronic bullpen issues and Bay's odious contract -- he's due $16 million in 2013 -- never say never. But Bell is guaranteed another $18 million through 2014, and at age 34, that's a considerable risk.
This much is certain, though: The Marlins can't stomach paying that much money to a setup man, and the longer Bell goes without closing, the shorter his stay in Miami is likely to be.
When Guillen was told that Bell had "figured it out," the manager laughed.
"That's ---- ," Guillen said. "Nobody's figured out baseball yet. He's pitched better in the sixth, seventh, eighth. We'll see how he pitches in the ninth."
As for the demotion, Guillen scoffed. "I didn't make that decision,'' he said. "He made that for himself."
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