Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Will Bell Crack at the WBC?

For Heath Bell, it's a dream come true.  A late call to play for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic.  He'll proudly head down to Florida to train, and by next week, he'll be pitching in anger; cranking it up to 95 MPH and throwing his hard slider, not just a changeup he's futzing around with in spring training.  With Joe Nathan, Brian Fuentes and BJ Ryan all bowing out of the USA bullpen, Bell will be much needed.  And if he pitches well, he'll come back to the Padres with a fresh dose of confidence as he inherits Trevor Hoffman's role as closer.  What's not to like?

Nothing, unless you're a Padres fan.

Now, I want to make clear, I'm a BIG fan of the World Baseball Classic.  I wish it wasn't in March.  I wish teams would take a three-week Olympic-style break in the middle of the season, so everyone could be in their best form and the top pitchers would be much more inclined to participate.  But that's for another time.  In 2009, the pitchers who knew they were going to be a part of the WBC have been training through the offseason, knowing their opening bell would ring in the first week of March, not April.  Jake Peavy's been preparing all winter to be the Team USA ace, along with his good friend Roy Oswalt.  He's ready.

Heath Bell's not ready.  Heath Bell was busy working out on the Wii Fit while Peavy was prepping to pitch in March.  Peavy threw three innings this weekend in midseason form.  Bell has been getting knocked around and is tinkering with a new pitch.  Heath Bell needs all of Spring Training to get ready for the big league season.  By pushing it too fast, he may get some immediate results, but the check will come due when he breaks down later in the season.  

I mean for goodness' sake, this is a man whose very name reveals his body profile.  Who else has a name that combines a candy bar with a fast food joint that features FourthMeal?

I like Bell and think he has at least a puncher's chance of developing into a shutdown closer.  But this is a risk for the Padres to take, exposing their ace pitcher and closer to the WBC when other teams are pulling their top arms off the board.  And maybe that's the real, underlying issue here: the Padres don't really have much at stake for the 2009 season.  Ownership is changing.  The Alderson regime will soon be over, but right now he still lurks as the steward of the drifting ship.  Players such as Peavy (and Giles, and Bell, and Gonzalez) will be seen more as numbers on a spreadsheet than parts of a winning team.  So if Bell goes down, what's the risk to the Pads?  It's not like they're looking to win the NL West or anything.  They just want you to "experience Padres baseball", they're not putting much hope into the on-field experience itself.  

A team that was hoping to rebound and play +.500 ball would not allow Heath Bell to get yanked into the WBC by his right arm.  They would say no, it's your first year as our closer and we want to make sure you're ready for the entire season, not just the start.  The same such team would probably be fearful of what could happen to their ace, or their top slugger.  But for the Padres, it's almost being run like a communal collective or an adult daycare center: come and go as you please, the skipper's cracking jokes, nobody's in charge, anyone and everyone could be gone when the next boss takes over.  In that environment, no matter how unwise, letting Bell pitch in the WBC is a no-brainer.  

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