There's a sense that if the Tampa Rays have done something, it must be a smart thing. Just because.
The Rays can acquire just about anyone, no matter how questionable, and things will just work out for them. To support their legitimately great players like Evan Longoria and David Price and Ben Zobrist, the Rays just keep moving question marks to and from their own Island of Misfit Toys, and the answer is always more wins.
Which is something that occurs to me every time. Tuesday, for example, when the Rays acquired Heath Bell, who racked up 132 saves from 2009 through '11, but has just 34 saves in the last two seasons, along with a sparkling 4.59 ERA. We think of relief pitchers as fundamentally inconsistent, but Bell's become our greatest example in captivity. He's become a Misfit Toy ... and now he's landed on the Island in the Bay.
Before delving into the Rays' rationale for acquiring Heath Bell, let's be clear about this: joining the Rays is not like getting sprinkled with magical pixie dust. I've identified nine players the Rays have picked up in the last few years who ... well, whose reputations had suffered badly, whether because of lousy statistics or off-the-field issues (real or imagined). Here's my binary take on those nine:
No, of course it's not so simple. Roberto Hernandez gave the Rays some valuable innings last season, and Hideki Matsui and Josh Lueke did little actual damage to the cause. The Rays place a lot of small bets, and while they might be batting less than .500 on those bets, they're way ahead in the chips pile.
So what do the Rays see in Heath Bell? Well, he's better than that 4.59 ERA. Thanks to poor BABiP luck and poor (in 2013) home-run luck, Bell's ERA was roughly a run higher in both 2012 and '13 than he deserved. He still throws almost exactly as hard as when he was one of the National League's top closers, and his oddly low strikeout rate in 2011 now looks like a blip rather than a trend. It also looks like Bell did benefit, as pitchers always have, from doing half his work in Petco Park. That said, Bell's career home/road splits are perfectly normal.
Career-wise, though, Bell just hasn't been a great pitcher. Which is fine. There aren't enough great relief pitchers to go around, really. There are lots and lots of good ones, though, and good ones will often get you by. Essentially, the Rays are giving up Justin Choate and $4 million for a durable reliever who's probably going to finish next season with an ERA between 3 and 4. Which is roughly the market rate. If he turns into Fernando Rodney, great. But he's highly unlikely to become Josh Lueke all of a sudden. This is another good bet with more upside than downside. Business as usual on the Island in the Bay.