ST. PETERSBURG — Tuesday's surprising trade that landed the Rays frontline catcher Ryan Hanigan and late-inning reliever Heath Bell for two minor-leaguers certainly looks promising now.
"Great job," manager Joe Maddon said.
But for it to actually pay off, the Rays are counting on two veteran players, both several years into their 30s, to make significant rebounds from recent poor performances.
For Hanigan, the issue appears primarily physical, as a series of nagging injuries led to career-worst offensive numbers in 2013. But he maintained his strong defense and presented well in a pre-deal physical exam.
Bell seems the bigger project, as he failed miserably with the Marlins in 2012 and posted only slightly less worse numbers last season in Arizona.
But the Rays see things — or, at least, see things differently. Especially in veteran relievers.
So just as when they somewhat surprisingly signed Fernando Rodney and Kyle Farnsworth, they sound more than cautiously optimistic that Bell, too, can be rebuilt.
"It's more about the ingredients he has in place," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "His stuff is virtually as good as when he was a dominant closer with the Padres (2009-11). He missed a lot of bats last year. He commanded the ball better than he had in previous years. He's just got a lot of things in place that give him a chance to be really good, and it's about trying to sync them all up."
There is some proof, as within an overall unimpressive line (5-2, 4.11, 15-of-22 saves) Bell had a career-low 2.19 walks per nine innings and a strikeouts-per-nine rate of 9.87, his best since 2010.
Arizona general manager Kevin Towers said Bell wasn't that far off last season and that he should literally benefit from a change of scenery, going to the Trop from Chase Field (where his numbers were inflated) and into the Rays' relaxed environment.
"Knowing the personality of a guy like Joe Maddon, it probably works well with a guy like Heath," Towers said.
Maddon liked both products of the three-team trade.
"Getting a late-inning, high-leverage, experienced reliever, like Heath, is necessary when it comes to getting to the playoffs, and advancing deeply," he said via text message. "Then to have a starting catcher with Hanigan's ability and reputation to pull it all together makes planning with specific direction much easier and believable."
First at first?
First base is the Rays' gaping hole heading into next week's winter meetings. Though Friedman said it was "premature" to speculate what they're going to do, team president Matt Silverman said they were "hopeful" of re-signing free agent James Loney.
Amid reports that the Pirates are extremely interested and that Loney, 29, may be seeking a three-year, $30 million deal, Silverman told 620-AM radio:
"He's someone that we're interested in, and he knows that. The good thing for us is he liked it here. We liked him, he fit in well. And we're a known quantity. When he's thinking about other things out there, he won't know what the other clubhouses are like, he won't know what it's like living in that city. And so that gives us a little bit of an advantage. Our wallet isn't as big as other teams', so that's one disadvantage for us. But I'm hopeful that he can be here."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays