Sunday, March 6, 2016

Random Former Prospect Sunday - Rob Bell

During the season, Sundays are set aside to take a look at a prospect at random, but with the minor league season over, I wasn't sure what to do for my Sunday article until this nugget of an idea came my way. How about we look at players who ranked in Baseball America's Top 100 while part of the Braves' organization, yet never appeared for the Braves? Over the next few months, I'll take a look at the prospects that were traded or simply faded away and just to keep up with my theme, I randomized the players.

Scott Halleran/Allsport/Getty
After finishing with 106 victories in 1998, the Atlanta Braves ultimately failed to advance to the World Series. It was a disappointing end to an impressive team that became just the second team in history to have five pitchers with at least 16 wins. While they had plenty of pitching, the '98 Braves had some issues at the plate. Keith Lockhart received 401 plate appearances as the primary second baseman in 1998 and struggled at the plate along with showing his poor range in the field. Michael Tucker, who had arrived with Lockhart before the 1997 season, also was a disappointment with the bat. To fix the latter, Atlanta signed Brian Jordan. The former? Well, they would need to break up their rotation to push a deal through. But that wasn't all. They would also have to deal one of their top pitching prospects.

The Braves saw in the Reds a team that could help them deal with not only the issue at second base, but almost improve the bullpen depth. Bret Boone had just made his first All-Star Game and won his first Gold Glove after slashing .266/.325/.458 with the Reds. Meanwhile, the Braves felt Mike Remlinger was being misused by the Reds as a swingman when he was better suited for bullpen work. John Schuerholz wanted both players and dangled Denny Neagle, who had just finished with a 3.55 ERA and was receiving an increased salary as a result of being part of Atlanta's famed rotation. With the development of Kevin Millwood along with prospects like Odalis Perez and Bruce Chen, the Braves didn't need Neagle as much as they needed offense. The Reds liked the deal, which would also bring Tucker to Cincinnati, but Reds GM Jim Bowden wasn't going to give up Boone and Remlinger without an extra piece - right-handed prospect Rob Bell. The Braves wanted to keep Bell, who had been third round pick of the '95 draft, but chose to take the deal.

It was a moment of significant change for Bell. Before being drafted by the Braves, he had attended Central High School in Marlboro, New York - a "hamlet" with less than 4000 people about two hours north of New York City. After two years to forget to begin his professional career, Bell made significant improvement in 1997 with the Macon Braves before seemingly coming into his own as a member of the Danville 97's, the one and only year of the club (read more). In 28 starts, Bell struck out 197 in 178.1 ING. He rarely walked anyone and kept the ball in the yard while maintaining an ERA of 3.28. It was the kind of year that gets you noticed and Bell improved his Baseball America prospect ranking from #68th overall after '97 to #35th. No wonder the Reds wanted him so bad.

Injuries limited his effectiveness the following year, though he was still a Top 60 prospect according to Baseball America. He would reach the majors in 2000 as a member of the opening day rotation. It was a hyper-aggressive move for a player with just 72 innings at AA, but the Reds were positive they had found their next big starter. Bell looked unfit to be in the majors, struggling to the tune of a 6.08 FIP in 26 starts. He gave up way too many homers (2.1 per nine) and walked a small village. The following season, the Reds again brought him north, but after nine starts, Cincinnatti cut bait and traded him to the Rangers for Edwin Encarnacion and Ruben Mateo.

Bell's season grew from bad-to-awful with Texas. In his 8th start, he surrendered eight runs and seven earned. That wasn't hugely surprising in itself as he had given up seven runs in his previous start. What was surprising - or at least noteworthy - was the fact that he had given up FIVE homeruns while recording just six outs. It broke the record for fewest outs recorded while surrendering at least five homeruns. Nearly 14 years later, Detroit's Shane Greene would push Bell out of the worst record book of all time by recording just five outs and giving up five homers.

Bell would pitch an additional 94 innings with the Rangers in 2002 and actually posted the best FIP of his career - 4.83. He was released after the season and landed with the Devil Rays. Bell continued to receive starts and over a three year period, he started 40 games for the Rays. His 5.28 ERA with Tampa Bay nearly matched his 5.36 FIP. Finally, Tampa Bay moved on and Bell would spent the next three years playing in four different organizations, but only getting to the majors again in 2007 with the O's for 30 ugly games as a reliever. He threw his last pitch as a member of the Charlotte Knights in May of 2008.

Since retiring, Bell has entered the world of sales as a member of the Hudson Valley Renegades, the short-season Class-A squad for the Rays. After beginning as a sales executive, he was promoted to Director of Corporate Sales. You can follow his continued involvement with baseball by checking out his twitter account.

Previous Random Former Prospects...
Jose Peraza
Tom Redington
Dennis Burlingame
J.R. Graham
Elvis Andrus
Bobby Smith
Bubba Nelson
Neftali Feliz
Gorkys Hernandez
Matt Belisle
Matt McClendon

2 comments:

  1. "Showing his poor range in the field"? Who said that Lockhart possessed "poor range"? Some erroneous media reports? Defensive WAR (Wins Above Replacement) certainly is not everything, especially when applied retroactively, but according to the metric, Lockhart constituted a good, above-average defensive second baseman in 1998, posting a 0.8 Defensive WAR, which improved his overall WAR to 1.2 despite a 0.6 Offensive WAR. With Lockhart making a team-leading 86 starts at second base, the Braves ranked fifth in all of baseball in Defensive Efficiency (the percentage of balls put into play that a defense turns into outs). Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine were notorious for keeping the ball in the middle of the field, and Maddux that season led the major leagues with a 2.22 ERA, while Glavine received his second National League Cy Young Award by going 20-6 with a career-low 2.47 ERA.

    According to Defensive WAR, Lockhart scored as an above-average defender in all six of his seasons in Atlanta. These results accord with my memory of his fielding, namely that he was very sure-handed and reliable, he possessed a fairly strong throwing arm (Lockhart would occasionally start at third base for the Braves), he turned the double play efficiently, and he flashed solid if unspectacular range. Never were those virtues more evident, either to my eyes or according to Defensive WAR, than in 2002. That season, a thirty-seven-year old Lockhart ranked eighth in the National League, and first among second basemen, in Defensive WAR at 1.7. He also placed third in the National League, among all fielders, in Total Zone Runs and first in Total Zone Runs among second basemen, after ranking second in Total Zone Runs among National League second basemen in 1998 (so much for his "poor range" that year). Although the old Range Factor metrics are crude, Lockhart also placed third among NL second basemen in 2002 in Range Factor/9 innings, with only Pokey Reese registering as significantly better (like Lockhart, Jose Vidro registered at 5.18).

    Now, he may well have benefited from all the ground balls to second base induced by Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, but the point is that Lockhart gobbled up those balls like a gopher, helping Maddux and Glavine rank second and third, respectively, in the National League in ERA in 2002 even though they only averaged 5.3 and 5.1 strikeouts per nine innings, respectively. Indeed, in 2002 with Lockhart as their primary second baseman, the Braves ranked third in baseball in Defensive Efficiency. The team's performance surged that year when its defense tightened up, and the Braves' defense tightened up when young second basemen Mark DeRosa and Marcus Giles both went to the Disabled List due to ankle injuries during the second half of May, allowing Lockhart to become Atlanta's primary second baseman by the end of the month. When someone later asked Gary Sheffield about the club's improved performance, he cited the team's enhanced defense, and the greatest change had been Lockhart's injury-induced insertion into the Braves' lineup.

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  2. Although the Braves loved Boone's defense (at least before they traded for him, not necessarily after), Atlanta primarily acquired him for the offensive upgrade. (By the way, Boone's on-base percentage in 1998 was .324, not .325, just to be technical about it.) Lockhart, by the way, played the entire 1998 season with a partially torn left rotator cuff. He played through the season with the injury and actually got off to a great start (.385 BA, .429 OBP, .631 SLG in April), but the injury certainly ended up affecting him.

    Also, I am not sure that the Braves felt that Mike Remlinger had necessarily been "misused" as a staring pitcher in Cincinnati. Part of Atlanta's reason for acquiring Remlinger in the deal was to give them a veteran insurance policy for their starting rotation in case neither Bruce Chen nor Odalis Perez appeared to be up for the job coming out of spring training. But Perez did impress in spring training, and Remlinger thrived in relief.

    Finally, I do recall the hype surrounding Rob Bell. Jim Bowden indeed touted him as the key to the deal, and some suggested that Bell could be another John Smoltz. Obviously, the Braves ended up with a much better feel for that question than did the Reds.

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