ST. PETERSBURG — In their world of seeking value at bargain prices, the Rays appeared to strike again Tuesday, landing frontline catcher Ryan Hanigan and potential closer Heath Bell in a three-team trade that didn't seem to cost them much.
In Hanigan, the Rays could have a multi-season solution behind the plate, as he agreed to a three-year, $10.75 million deal with a 2017 option as part of the deal, leading them to likely trade Jose Lobaton. And in Bell, the next candidate for their reliever reclamation process, investing $5.5 million in the hope that he can regain his 2009-11 form as one of the game's best.
To get Hanigan from Cincinnati and Bell from Arizona, the Rays gave up two minor-leaguers. One is known, Justin Choate, an undrafted right-hander who pitched at short-season Class A Hudson Valley. The other is not, a player to be named within six months who is not on the 40-man roster, eliminating most of the Rays' advanced prospects, though the D'backs consider it their key to the deal.
Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman stopped short of assigning roles to either new player, but he raved about their attributes and expressed confidence that both, whom he has long coveted, will flourish.
Hanigan, 33, comes to the Rays with a reputation as a top game-caller and defensive standout, though he is coming off a rough 2013 season when, limited by oblique, left wrist and right thumb injuries, he hit only .198 with a .306 on-base percentage. Over the previous five seasons in Cincinnati, Hanigan had a .275 average and .370 on-base percentage.
"That's the bet we're making, that when he's healthy, he'll return to the really good player he's always been," Friedman said.
Hanigan, a Rollins College product, said he is healthy and ready for the new opportunity, so much so that he has already asked about getting video of his talented new pitchers and learning details of the Rays system.
"I'm just excited about the situation," he said. "It's going to be fun."
The trade, something of a surprise given Lobaton's 2013 success and the re-signing of Jose Molina to a two-year deal, was agreed to late Saturday, and the Rays had 72 hours to work out the long-term deal with Tampa-based agent Tom O'Connell. "It was a very important aspect for us," Friedman said. "We wouldn't necessarily have been willing to do this without it."
Hanigan will make $2.75 million this coming season, $3.5 million in 2015, $3.7 million in 2016 and either $3.75 million in 2017 or an $800,000 buyout.
With Hanigan aboard and Molina back, Lobaton is destined to be traded, though Friedman insisted it wasn't mandatory as the Rays are in the unusual position — for them, anyway — of having depth behind the plate. "It's not against the rules to have three quality major-league catchers," he said, "although maybe in the past with us it's looked like it."
Bell, 36, is confident he can reclaim the closer's job by regaining his 2009-11 form, when he logged 132 saves (in 146 chances) with a 2.36 ERA for the Padres. That led him to a three-year, $27 million deal with the Marlins, and a miserable experience, as he converted 19 of 27 saves with a 5.09 ERA and lost his job. He then was traded to Arizona, where he was slightly better, converting 15 of 22 saves with a 4.11 ERA.
"I think I have a shot of winning that job, the ninth-inning job," he said. "I see my role as coming into spring training and showing them what I can do. … I do feel like I can rise to that occasion. I feel like I can pitch better."
Bell said he had undisclosed off-field personal issues in 2012 and some mechanical flaws in 2013, and he welcomed the fresh start in the American League. D'backs general manager Kevin Towers said Bell still has good velocity (92-94 mph) and control (72 strikeouts, 16 walks) but had problems with location, specifically his curveball, and was hurt by allowing 12 homers and pitching in Arizona (6.83 ERA vs. 1.96 on the road).
"I still think he's got a lot left in the tank," Towers said. "He's got a very resilient arm."
Bell has a $9 million salary, though the Rays will get $3.5 million from the D'backs, who got it from the Marlins. He also has a $9 million option for 2015 that vests with 55 games finished.
Towers said the player to be named can't be revealed due to an "administrative issue."
Staff writer Joe Smith contributed to this report. Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays