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Smizik: Bell's release is Pirates' best option

Tuesday, March 19, 2002

Were it coming from a Pentagon spokesman, the phrase "Operation Shutdown" might well apply to a military action in Afghanistan. But when it comes from eccentric and grossly disappointing outfielder Derek Bell, it has the ring of a veiled threat.

The Pirates have many reasons to release Bell, but none so compelling as this one. Although there is only the faintest hope that Bell might help the Pirates, there is concrete documentation that he will not.

The Pirates should terminate Bell in the immediate future and send him on his way with these words: Good riddance.

He has been an uncomfortable presence in the Pirates' clubhouse since the day he arrived -- the past-his-prime veteran who thinks he still has it -- and his outburst Sunday is reason enough for his release.

The background is this:

In a spring training interview, Bell claimed to be unaware he was competing for the right-field job and that the position was his. He claimed to have assumed this although it has been more than a year since he performed even close to the level expected of an average major-leaguer.

Bell said, "If it ain't settled with me out there [in right field], then they can trade me. I ain't going out there to hurt myself in spring training battling for a job. If it is [a competition], then I'm going into 'Operation Shutdown.'"

He did not elaborate on what "Operation Shutdown" would be, but such wording suggests a lack of effort would be forthcoming if he wasn't anointed the starter.

With Bell, it would be difficult to know when the shutdown would begin because in his time with the Pirates he has yet to start up.

The suggestion by Bell that he be traded is laughable. There's not a team in baseball that would think for a split second about picking up his contract, which has $4.5 million -- some of which is deferred -- remaining on it. In fact, if the Pirates released Bell, it's unlikely any team would sign him for the major-league minimum.

Bell's signing of a two-year, $9 million contract by former general manager Cam Bonifay in December of 2000 was laughable at the time and has been a crying shame ever since. The cash-starved Pirates gave money they could scarcely afford to a player whose best days were well behind him and a player no other team wanted.

Although Bell had hit 18 home runs and driven in 69 runs with the New York Mets in 2000, his batting average after the All-Star game was .187. The lack of interest by other teams was an indication most felt Bell was not worth the price the Pirates were paying.

He was atrocious for the Pirates, batting .173 in 156 at-bats with five homers and 13 RBIs. In minor-league rehabilitation stints, he batted .162 with one homer and nine RBIs in 68 at-bats. He made his final start with the Pirates July 3. Although he returned from a rehabilitation assignment with Class AAA Nashville in September, he never was reinstated to the roster.

Even if Bell was capable of helping the Pirates this season -- and it's not likely that he is -- the Pirates should be more concerned with the future than the present. Regardless of how well Bell plays in 2002, he won't be in a Pirates uniform in 2003. For too long, the Pirates have taken the short-term approach to correcting their annual losing records. It was that kind of thinking that was responsible for Bell's signing.

The Pirates must look long term everywhere and that includes right field, where four younger players are competing with Bell. Certainly the promise shown by Craig Wilson last year merits him playing in front of Bell. The same is true of Armando Rios, who has yet to fully recover from knee surgery. Even players with less credentials, Chad Hermansen and Rob Mackowiak, are better options than Bell.

Hermansen, the one-time crown jewel of the Pirates' minor-league system, should be given one more chance -- not for what he has done but for what he might do. A roster spot that might be filled by Bell would be better used by Hermansen, who would be claimed by another team if the Pirates tried to pass him through waivers to get him back into their minor-league system.

Any of those options will be a better path toward team betterment than Bell -- who's no option at all.

Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com.

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