Everything changed for the Mets when they signed right-hander Pedro Martinez to a four-year, $53 million free-agent contract after the 2004 season.
Center fielder Carlos Beltran followed by accepting a seven-year, $119 million free-agent contract. The Mets, preparing for the launch of their new regional sports network, suddenly were alive.
Heath Bell isn’t Martinez — a future Hall of Famer and one of the most exciting starting pitchers of his time.
No, Bell is a 34-year-old closer with a declining strikeout rate, a guy who might not be as effective outside of San Diego’s spacious Petco Park.
For the Marlins, though, the signing of Bell to a three-year, $27 million free-agent contract could be the same kind of trigger that the Martinez deal was for the Mets in ’04.
A demonstration of commitment. A statement that things are different. A message to other free agents that, yes, the Fish are serious about contending as they prepare to open their new ballpark in downtown Miami.
Bell must pass a physical in Miami on Friday to officially become a Marlins player. His deal includes a $9 million vesting option for a fourth season. Given the volatility of relievers, even quality closers such as Bell, the Marlins are unlikely to get a sufficient return on their investment.
But here’s the thing: What if shortstop Jose Reyes follows? What if left-hander C.J. Wilson follows? What if the Marlins are entirely transformed, becoming a force in the NL East and the talk of Miami?
And what if the Bell deal proves the start of it all?
Reyes and Wilson are the Marlins’ primary big-name targets, according to a major league source; the team is less confident of landing two other players to whom they have made offers, lefty Mark Buehrle and first baseman Albert Pujols.
But hey, talks are fluid; no one knows where this is all going. Players like playing in Florida. Free agents just did not have much of a reason to choose the Marlins or Rays in the past, when neither team was spending.
The Marlins are spending now.
For many Latin players, Miami is an especially attractive destination, the closest major league city to their native Caribbean and South American countries, a city where Spanish is widely spoken.
Bell isn’t Latin, but he owns a home in Port St. Lucie, about 110 miles north of Miami and just 30 miles north of the Marlins’ training site in Jupiter. Playing in Florida, he will not pay state income tax. Playing for the Marlins, he’ll experience the excitement of opening the new park.
Of course, the Marlins can’t stop with Bell. Reyes would seem to be next; one rival GM said Thursday that other clubs backed off after the Marlins made their initial offer — $90 million for six years, according to a major league source. As of now, no other club appears as interested, but teams often mask their intentions in free agency.
Even if the Marlins added Reyes on top of Bell, their team would be far from complete. Shortstop Hanley Ramirez has not publicly embraced his proposed move to third base. The Marlins still need a quality defensive center fielder. And their rotation after right-handers Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco and Anibal Sanchez remains a concern.
The Marlins want to sign one starting pitcher, either Wilson or Buehrle, and trade for another. As one club official said Thursday, referring to the site of next week’s winter meetings, “It would be very surprising to me if we are not active in Dallas.”
And don’t forget: Pujols still could fit, too.
The Cardinals, according to one source, have yet to move off their spring-training offer to Pujols — a nine-year deal in the $190 million-to-$200 million range. The Marlins, by all accounts, impressed Pujols during their meeting with him in Miami. If they fail to get him, they always could turn to Prince Fielder, who just happens to live in Orlando.
OK, the Fish are not going to boast a $150 million payroll, but these no longer are the Marlins of old. They will be criticized for overspending on Bell, even though over the past three seasons he has averaged 44 saves and produced a 2.36 ERA. But this deal cannot be judged on its performance value alone — and frankly, neither can any of the others that the Marlins are trying to get done.
In the end, the Pedro Martinez contract worked out badly for the Mets; his first season was his only healthy one of the four. But the team took on a different identity from the moment Martinez arrived, coming within one game of the World Series in 2006, his second season in New York.
Bell isn’t Martinez. The Marlins aren’t anyone’s idea of a World Series contender. But let’s see how this plays out.
Let’s see what else the Marlins accomplish. Let’s see if Bell is the spark.