PHOENIX — The Diamondbacks did not wait until the winter meetings to start their repackaging, sending reliever Heath Bell to Tampa Bay and left-hander David Holmberg to Cincinnati in a three-team deal Tuesday.
The D-backs added minor league right-hander Justin Choate and a player to be named from the Rays, but the major get was a heftier wallet, the better to serve their long-term mission of adding a starting pitcher and/or a power bat in the corner outfield or at third base as they prepare for the meetings that begin Monday in Orlando, Fla.
Tampa Bay will pick up $5.5 million of the $9 million 2014 salary Bell is owed from the three-year, $27 million deal he signed with Miami as a free agent after 2011, and the D-backs are not paying a dime, a source said later Tueday night. Per teams of the trade that brought Bell to the D-backs last winter, Miami will pay the other $3.5 million.
The salary relief will help in “being able to add starting pitching, probably a No. 1 or a No. 2,” Towers said. “With Cody Ross being uncertain, we also will look at a power outfield bat.”
The D-backs, who could kick their payroll above the $100 million range thanks to the influx of $25 million in FOX TV money this season, have about $71.5 million committed to 11 players who are under contract for 2014. Ross, who is to make $8.5 million, suffered a fractured hip in August, and the D-backs hope he can return some time during spring training.
“The financial flexibility is huge for us … to add depth andplug holes,” said Towers, adding that the player to be named also “shows real value as a prospect. He is the key player.” Towers said “administrative reasons” preclude the team from announcing the player’s name, and that the deal may not be finalized until spring training.
Towers also said he believes Bell “still has a lot left in the tank.”
“For Heath, it is all about location, being able to hit his spots. One thing, he didn’t land his curve ball as successfully as he did in San Diego. And not being able to keep the ball in the park. If they can get him to throw the curve ball for a consistent strike, that would make him that much better,” Towers said.
That being said, Bell would have entered spring training with little chance to open as the closer. J.J. Putz again appears to be the top candidate for that role after going 3-1 with six saves and a 2.36 season in an injury-affected 2013. David Hernandez and Brad Ziegler also could be in the mix, but Towers was not about to name his closer in December.
Ziegler was 8-1 with 13 saves and a 2.22 ERA and filled the job the second of 2013. Newcomer Matt Stites, who was obtained from San Diego for Ian Kennedy at the trade deadline last year, also could be a candidate after a strong performance in the Arizona Fall League.
Bell is looking forward to his first stint in the American League.
“I have an opportunity to pitch in the ninth inning, which is a good thing,” Bell said of the trade, “but I definitely have to go out and earn it. I can’t just show up in spring training, but I have a good chance to win a job.”
Fernando Rodney had 85 saves as the Rays’ closer the last two seasons but is a free agent. By absorbing Bell’s contract, it appears Tampa will not re-sign Rodney. The Rays also received catcher Ryan Hanigan from Cincinnati in Tuesday’s deal.
“Tampa is an unbelievable team. People seem to overlook them, but they are always in there at the end,” Bell said from his home in southern California. “I’ve heard good things about (manager) Joe Maddon. People say he is like Buddy (Black, San Diego manager), and I think very highly of Buddy.”
Bell had good moments in his one season with the D-backs, when he was 5-2 with 15 saves and a 4.11 ERA. Bell inherited the closer’s role when Putz went out with an elbow injury in early May, but he hit rough patches in mid-June and early July and eventually was replaced by Ziegler. Bell gave up a career-high 12 home runs in 65⅔ innings after being acquired from Miami, where he was 4-5 with 19 saves and a 5.09 ERA in 2012.
Bell leaves with positive feelings.
“I was just trying to get back to who I was, and I think I got back there by midseason,” said Bell, who had 40-save seasons in San Diego from 2009-11. “I got totally messed up two years ago, and (pitching coach Charles) Nagy and Sherls (bullpen coach Glenn Sherlock) got me back to where I wanted to be. Arizona was one of the best teammates teams I have ever been on,” he said. “I feel like we were a family.”
Choate, a 6-foot right-hander, was signed as a free agent by Tampa Bay last summer after pitching at Stephen F. Austin State. He was 1-3 with six saves and a 2.88 ERA in 16 games at Class A Hudson Valley.
Holmberg, 22, made one start with the D-backs last season, giving up three runs in 3⅔ innings of a no-decision against San Diego on Aug. 27. He was 5-8 with a 2.75 ERA at Class AA Mobile last season. He is considered a potential No. 4 or No. 5 starter in a major league rotation with good command and control but not an overpowering fastball.
NOTES: The D-backs have made an offer to free agent third baseman Eric Chavez, Towers said, and would like to have him back to strengthen the bench and the clubhouse. “I think if he came back, he could be a leader,” Towers said. Chavez had 44 RBIs in 254 at-bats last season, second only to Paul Goldschmidt in ratio. … The D-backs did not tender a contract to right-hander Daniel Hudson, reaching “the 5-yard line” on negotiations before failing to agree before the Monday night deadline. “My hope is that we will come to a resolution and he will be a Diamondback in the very near future,” Towers said. “I think both sides still want this to happen.” Hudson, who now can negotiate with any team, began throwing catch at 25 feet this week, Towers said, but there is no timetable for his return from a second Tommy John surgery last June.