Nationals Bet on Josh Bell To Bolster Middle of Lineup

The Nationals finished the 2020 season with several major holes on their roster, and two of the biggest were related. They needed a new first baseman, after the now-departed Asdrúbal Cabrera and Eric Thames combined for -0.7 WAR at that spot last year. They also needed a cleanup bat, with no existing roster option looking fit to follow Trea Turner and Juan Soto in the lineup. Fortunately for them, a good first baseman typically bats in the middle of the order, meaning they could fix two major weaknesses with a single player. Two days before Christmas, they did just that, acquiring Josh Bell from the Pirates in exchange for right-handed pitching prospects Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean.

A trade of Bell has felt inevitable for a while now, as the Pirates are usually rebuilding in some capacity and always looking to shed salary. Set to turn 29 in August, he is entering his second season of arbitration after making $4.8 million last year, was in line to be the second-most expensive player on the team behind Gregory Polanco, and was one of the only remaining veterans on the team who could have fetched some kind of prospect haul in a trade. With Pittsburgh going nowhere in 2021, holding on to Bell didn’t make much sense.

The return might have been bigger than what Pittsburgh ultimately received had Bell not fallen apart in 2020. From 2017 to ’19, the first three full seasons of his career, he recorded a .264/.352/.483 line with a 118 wRC+ and 4.0 WAR over 450 games with stable walk and strikeout rates and exit velocity figures that were trending up. In 2019, the best season of his career, he finished in the 95th percentile in exit velocity, 92nd percentile in xwOBA and 88th percentile in barrel rate and appeared to be making the leap to stardom. Then 2020 arrived, and everything that had been working the previous season went wrong.

Last season, Bell’s strikeout rate ballooned, his walk rate fell to a career low, his power evaporated, and his overall output vanished. This wasn’t just small-sample dumb luck, either. After hardly budging the previous three years, his whiff rate leaped by eight points. His ground-ball rate, which had fallen each of the past two seasons, jumped by nearly 12 points. By almost every measure, Bell was a markedly worse hitter in 2020 than ever before.

What went wrong? Bell has his own ideas. Per The Athletic’s Brittany Ghiroli, he said he developed bad habits such as “jerking his front side and jumping toward the ball” from the workouts he was doing with his father in the spring while waiting for the season to begin. There’s also his batting stance and swing, both of which have caused him issues in the past. When Ben Clemens looked at Bell’s power surge early in 2019, he noted that Bell had found and stuck to a consistent stance and swing throughout the season, with each of his plate appearances looking more or less the same. That was no longer the case in 2020. Here are four different swings from Bell, all from the first month of the season:

They’re all completely different. Sometimes Bell holds his bat upright with just a little wiggle; sometimes he rests it on his shoulder; and sometimes he moves it all over the place. Sometimes his leg kick is quite pronounced and lands early; sometimes it’s more deliberate and lands on time; sometimes it’s neither. His erratic behavior in the batter’s box had never made him a poor hitter before, so we can’t just point to this as the sole explanation and be done with it. But last season’s disruption of his routine along with a slow start may have pressured him into tinkering more than usual, and there simply weren’t enough games in the year for him to get settled. A return to normalcy can only help, and Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long is optimistic about his new project: “At the end of the day, once he starts to attack the ball, it pretty much looks the same,” he told Ghiroli.

As for the Pirates, their fans will probably be disappointed not to get either of Washington’s best pitching prospects — Jackson Rutledge and Cade Cavalli, also the team’s most recent top draft picks — for their former All-Star. Instead, Pittsburgh lands Crowe, a 26-year-old who made his MLB debut last season, and Yean, a 19-year-old who will likely pitch in A-ball in 2021.

My colleague Eric Longenhagen hasn’t published his 2021 Nationals top prospects list yet, but he thinks both Crowe and Yean will be in the 40+ Future Value tier, which would have put them higher up in Washington’s wafer-thin farm system than in most other organizations. Crowe, a second-round pick in 2017, has started every professional game he’s appeared in, including three games in the majors over the summer. Not that those starts went well, as he struck out eight, walked eight and allowed 13 runs on 14 hits in 8.1 innings. The Pirates will give Crowe the opportunity to make the starting rotation out of spring training, but Longenhagen feels his long-term future is in the bullpen.

Yean, who was signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2017, is much further from the majors but regarded as the better prospect in this trade. According to Longenhagen, Yean was into the mid-90s with his fastball during his time in instructional play, though without much movement. His secondary stuff, meanwhile, has made noticeable improvements: His slider now runs in the 86–88 mph range, something few teenagers can pull off, and his changeup has made strides as well.

Despite finishing last in the NL East at 26–34, Washington had yet to make a splash this winter, and after the season was over, the Nationals lost seven players to free agency and declined contract options on four more. The position player contingent was affected most dramatically: A whopping 42.7% of the Nationals’ plate appearances in 2020 came from players who are no longer on the roster. Yet before trading for Bell, their list of offseason additions stood at one: Sam Clay, a 27-year-old reliever who has never pitched in the majors. It’s a safe bet, then, that more moves are on the way beyond Bell, or at least should be. Second base, left field, the back of the rotation, and the bullpen could all use help, and depending on how the team feels about Yan Gomes at catcher and Carter Kieboom at third base, those positions could also see changes.

More deals are likely coming for the Pirates as well; they’ll just be subtracting instead of adding. Joe Musgrove may bring back more than Bell if he gets dealt, as he won’t be a free agent for two more years and owns a FIP- of 86 and 6.6 WAR over the past three seasons. Jameson Taillon, who has had to battle everything from two Tommy John surgeries to cancer just to stay on the mound, has reportedly come up in trade talks as well, as has Adam Frazier. The combination of a last-place season and a year of lost gate revenue has apparently emboldened penny-pinching owner Bob Nutting to order payroll-cutting measures wherever possible, setting the stage for a long road back to contention for Pittsburgh.

Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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3 years ago

Maybe the Pirates can get for 2 years of Musgrove what the A’s got for 2.5 years of Sonny Gray in 2018 (also about what the Blue Jays got for 1.5 years of Stroman): an FV50, an FV45+, and an FV45.

Tony Wolfe is so bitter about Bob Nutting’s cost cutting when a team is bad and so ebullient with the Reds signing Moustakas and Castellanos. Now the Reds have traded Iglesias and are very motivated to trade Suarez, Gray, and possibly Castillo. Mediocre teams shouldn’t spend a lot in FA to have a shot. The GM gets fired and the next one unwinds all his veteran acquisitions that Fangraphs writers love. Only teams that are already playoff-bound (40 WAR) and just need that 1 bat and 1 pitcher should spend.