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Padres should trade Bell in August
1) Sign Bell to a contract extension, which the team has declined to do even though Bell has said he is willing to accept a steep discount.
2) Trade Bell during the August waiver period and receive an even lesser return than was available before the July 31 non-waiver deadline.
3) Keep Bell and offer him salary arbitration to ensure draft-pick compensation if he leaves as a free agent, a decision that could backfire on the club in multiple ways.
If I were the Padres, I would pick Door No. 2, save the remaining portion of Bell's $7.5 million salary and accept whatever return another team offers, however embarrassing it might be.
Bell, 31-for-33 in save chances with a 2.23 ERA, almost certainly will be claimed on waivers, if only by a team trying to block him from going to another contender.
Once a claim occurs, the Padres could negotiate with that club and that club only, losing the leverage they enjoyed before July 31, when they could have moved Bell to any team.
Sound rough? Well, it is.
But a trade would be the lesser of all evils.
The Padres do not want to sign Bell to even a two-year extension; he turns 34 on Sept. 29 and is showing some early signs of decline, yet his price still would be high.
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Bell has made three straight All-Star teams. As amenable as he might be to a discount, the club could not in good conscience cut his salary from $7.5 million.
Arbitration, though, creates the potential for a different kind of financial hit on the club.
Bell already has said that he would accept an arbitration offer to remain in San Diego, where he, his wife Nicole and four children have established strong roots.
The move likely would force the Padres to pay Bell a non-guaranteed, one-year salary in the $10 million to $12 million range — an exorbitant sum for a team that opened the current season with a $45.6 million payroll.
Oh, and one other thing:
The Padres could not necessarily bank on draft-pick compensation if they offered Bell arbitration and he left as a free agent.
The compensation system is almost certain to undergo significant revisions in the next collective bargaining agreement, which could take effect this offseason.
There is a chance — though probably a small one — the Padres would get something less than the two picks they would expect for losing Bell.
The players union wants to eliminate such compensation for players harmed by the system — most notably, relievers whose free-agent value is diminished when teams balk at sacrificing draft picks as part of the price.
Teams generally do not mind losing picks for elite free agents such as Carl Crawford. Bell, even under a new system, might qualify as elite. But Rafael Soriano and Jose Valverde are examples of recent free-agent closers whose markets suffered due to the additional cost of a draft pick. The union might contend that a closer such as Bell falls into that category, too.
Any rules change might not take effect immediately; a grandfather clause could postpone implementation until the following offseason. However, two of the three changes to the system in the 2006 agreement were enacted instantly. The union, sources say, would not want any delay.
The Padres obviously would prefer the system to stay in place for another year; they took into account draft-pick compensation when weighing their trade offers for Bell, measuring the value of the proposals against the value of the picks.
Besides, club officials are not convinced Bell actually would accept arbitration. If some team offers Bell a three-year, $30 million guarantee, it wouldn't be very smart of him to reject it for a one-year, non-guaranteed contract for about one-third the money.
Then again, who knows how this will play out?
The market likely will be flooded with closers this offseason — the Red Sox's Jonathan Papelbon, Phillies’ Ryan Madson and Brewers' Francisco Rodriguez all will be free agents, as will Francisco Cordero if the Reds decline his $12 million option and Jose Valverde if the Tigers decline his $9 million option.
Of that group, Bell is younger than only Cordero, who is 36. Bell's velocity remains in the 93 to 94 mph range, but his strikeout rate is down this season, and he hasn't been quite as effective against left-handed hitters. He also is benefiting from an abnormally low batting average on balls in play.
Make no mistake — Bell is still one of the best closers in the game. Teams, though, are growing increasingly reluctant to pay big money to ninth-inning specialists. Bell might find a lucrative long-term deal elusive, particularly if he slumps in the final two months. Arbitration, for a variety of reasons, could end up his best option.
Which brings us to yet another catch for the Padres:
If Bell as a free agent accepted arbitration, he could not be traded until June 15 unless he gave his consent, something he might not want to do, given his affection for San Diego.
His next club would rent him at a higher salary — and, if draft-pick compensation still existed, that club would be uncomfortable offering him arbitration and paying him even more. Thus, Bell's trade value might be even lower than it was this time around.
Put it all together, and the Padres should have either traded Bell by now or signed him to an extension.
Their best remaining option — a trade during the August waiver period — is not a very good option at all.
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