One scenario we examined yesterday in discussing how Heath Bell’s situation might play out is that he could accept arbitration and remain in San Diego another year rather than pursue long-term options elsewhere. The notion that a professional ballplayer would take less money to stay in a place he considers home may seem curious to folks raised on the stereotype of greedy athletes, but apparently that’s what Bell intends to do.
Bell seems to be serious about continuing his career as a member of the Padres:
I’d like to get a three-year contract with the Padres. But I think I’m in position to come back no matter what… If they offered me three years at $27 million, we’d talk. If they offered me three years at $30 million, I would really have to consider it.
Arbitration at one year might be worth $12 million… The next step then is arbitration. And right now, my position is I’m not going to say no if they offer it to me.
Fan reaction to Bell’s loyalty to team and city has been fascinating. Mostly it has consisted of, “Jed Hoyer screwed up by not trading Bell.” So yeah, big guy, we’re glad you’re still here.
The Padres, of course, are not compelled to offer Bell arbitration. This is the path they chose a few years ago with Mike Piazza and this past off-season with Miguel Tejada. The downside to such an approach is that the club then receives no draft picks as compensation for losing said player to free agency.
There is a real possibility that Bell walks after the season and the Padres get nothing in return for him. If the Padres decide that they don’t want to spend $12 million on him next year (or $9 million over each of the next three years), that’s that. And for a team that figures to have a payroll in the neighborhood of $45-50 million, this means about 18 to 27 percent of it tied up in a 34-year-old with declining peripherals who pitches 5 percent of his team’s innings.
Where things get complicated is in Bell’s value to the organization beyond his on-field contributions. I won’t call them intangibles because (a) that’s a dirty word and (b) these are measurable, although not with any publicly available information.
Bell is a three-time All-Star. He is the de facto face of the franchise. If you think the Padres are invisible to everyone north of SR-78 and east of I-15 now, wait until you see what happens when Bell leaves.
But that’s a crap argument, because those folks aren’t helping the Padres increase revenue. Maintaining a high profile is great, because otherwise you run the risk of not broadening your fan base and, to use a purely hypothetical example, having your beautiful ballpark overrun with Giants fans when that team comes to town.
You know what increases revenue? Those corporate suites. I don’t know the exact numbers, but I’m willing to bet (a 12-ounce diet soda; I’m really feeling this) that the Padres make more money off of one of those deals in a year than they’ll make off of me in a lifetime or three.
You know what helps sell those deals? Guys like Heath Bell.
The promise of personal appearances at company functions can be a powerful bargaining chip. And if kids happen to be at those functions, their interactions with ballplayers could help engender brand loyalty.
Before you dismiss this line of thought, bear in mind that every captain of industry once was a kid. The odds are long, but they’re better than zero, which is what you get if don’t try at all.
I’m not saying that the Padres should sign Bell to a long-term contract or offer him arbitration. I’m saying that this decision will be more difficult than it might appear at first glance.
You and I can point to his advancing age and declining strikeout rate, and cry “Danger! Danger!” Those numbers are easy to see and interpret. What we can’t do with the information available to us is figure out how many corporate suites Bell will help sell, thus boosting subsequent payrolls with which to procure presumably better talent.
Is Bell an expense? Or is he an asset, an investment in the future?
Such questions do not have simple answers, and I cannot pretend to know what is right. What I do know is this: It is difficult to be Hoyer right now, and it is difficult to be a Padres fan right now.
But you know something? I didn’t need Bell to tell me that.