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The Thursday Takeaway
As part of the Marlins’ spending spree this past winter, President of Baseball Operations Larry Beinfest doled out a three-year, $27 million deal to Heath Bell in an effort to shore up the team’s bullpen. The man formerly known as Leo Nunez did a solid job in the closer role last season, converting 36 of 42 chances, but with the team in win-now mode, it made sense to bolster the relief corps. And the uncertainty surrounding Juan Carlos Oviedo’s availability provided additional impetus for a move.

Yet, the Bell signing was almost immediately panned. Pricey, multi-year deals for relievers have backfired early and often in recent years, and the husky right-hander was coming off a 2011 campaign littered with red flags. Bell slammed the door in 43 of 48 tries, but his K/PA rate plummeted from 30.0 percent in 2010 to 19.9 percent in 2011, and his FIP consequently rose from 2.08 to 3.20. The Marlins rushed to get a deal done with Bell on December 5, and they may have paid a premium to lock him down early after the Phillies swiped Jonathan Papelbon on November 14.

What no one could have predicted, though, is Bell’s utter collapse to begin this season, which reached its lowest point yet in his meltdown against the Mets on Thursday afternoon. Tasked with protecting a 2-1 lead to begin the ninth, Bell threw 46 pitches to record two outs, issued four walks and then allowed a walk-off single to rookie Kirk Nieuwenhuis—the result was his third blown save and loss just 18 games into the year.

Bell is still featuring a 94 mph fastball, but he’s missing the strike zone and not missing bats. The man who enters to Breaking Benjamin’s “Blow Me Away” has induced whiffs on a paltry 5.71 percent of his heaters to date. Once known for his sprints to the mound and All-Star Game slide—signs of confidence from the fun-loving 34-year-old—Bell looked flustered yesterday at Citi Field, indicating that he may need a break from ninth-inning duties if manager Ozzie Guillen is willing to grant it.

But if the Marlins are going to contend this season, handing those reins to Chad Gaudin or Ryan Webb is only a temporary solution. Miami is in the NL East cellar at 7-11, and its closer has been directly responsible for more than a quarter of those losses. That’s not supposed to happen when you devote one-sixth of your $200-million off-season outlay to shoring up the bullpen. And if Bell does not get back on track soon, Beinfest will need to scramble to cover up for the mistake.

What to Watch for This Weekend

  • Jose Altuve went 8-for-13 during the Astros’ midweek series against the Brewers, and his .377 batting average is second only to Matt Kemp’s .449 in the National League. The diminutive second baseman hit an opposite-field homer off Randy Wolf on Wednesday, notched his first four-hit game on Thursday, and has collected multiple hits in 10 of his first 18 games, cementing himself as one of the hottest hitters in baseball heading into this weekend’s three-game set with the Reds, which begins at 7:10 p.m. ET tonight.
  • The last time Rays righty James Shields pitched in Arlington, he was shelled for seven runs in five innings, enabling the Rangers to even the 2011 ALDS between the teams at one game apiece. Shields—who is 3-0 with a 2.76 ERA to start the year—will have a chance at redemption tonight (8:05 p.m. ET) in the opener of the weekend’s marquee series.
  • After several seasons of erratic performance and trouble missing bats, Nationals lefty Ross Detwiler has started the year with a 0.56 ERA and 15 strikeouts in his first 16 innings, ensuring that precisely no one in the nation’s capital will miss John Lannan. He has a chance to build on those numbers when the 14-5 Nationals take on the 13-6 Dodgers in the first game of their three-game series in Los Angeles tonight (10:10 p.m. ET).
  • The Red Sox bullpen needs all the help it can get, and a veteran lefty may be coming to the rescue from Pawtucket. Rich Hill has fanned 18 batters over nine innings on his rehab stint after elbow surgery, suggesting to manager Bobby Valentine that he’s ready to contribute, perhaps as soon as this weekend in Chicago. Hill won’t move mountains, but he should be an immediate upgrade over lefty specialist Justin Thomas, who is currently sitting on a 7.71 ERA and has coughed up 10 hits while recording 14 outs.