The Washington Nationals acquired a first baseman who’s right up their alley: Josh Bell.
Bell is a pure power hitter. He has a long, resounding swing that generates power and has been a fearsome force in the Pirates order in years past. While he hit just .226 in Major League Baseball’s 60-game regular season, Bell is just a season removed from posting 37 home runs, 116 RBIs, and a .936 OPS. In that season (2019) he finished in the top five percent of MLB in average exit velocity (92.4 mph).
For his career, Bell owns an .814 OPS and a 116 OPS+; he’s precisely what the Nationals needed.
For starters, they had a vacancy at first base. Eric Thames and Asdrubal Cabrera are free agents, Howie Kendrick recently retired, and it’s unknown if Ryan Zimmerman will return to the field after opting out of the 2020 season. Bell, without question, becomes the Nationals starting first baseman.
Sure, he’s not stellar at first; Bell posted a -1 DRS at the position last season, which is his career best. At the same time, he brings three-plus years of experience starting at first to the table, which no one else on Washington’s payroll has. What Bell lacks in the field he makes up for at the plate, and his offensive skill set falls in line with what manager Dave Martinez needs in his order.
Yes, they finished between fourth and 10th in MLB in runs, hits, batting average, and OPS last season. However, those accumulations are misleading because Juan Soto and Trea Turner heavily carried the load. Soto posted a .351 batting average and an 1.185 OPS, and Turner posted a .335 batting average and a .982 OPS.
The Nationals had difficulty getting offense from those not named Soto and Turner. It was a couple hot weeks or a tedious season from the bulk of the roster. Now, do they have individuals capable of hitting at a higher level? Yes, they do. Victor Robles can hit better than .220; one would think Carter Kieboom can log more than one extra-base hit across a full season; a healthy Starlin Castro is a smooth hitter with power.
The Nationals still need a second catcher and another outfielder, two additions that would theoretically improve the offense.
Bell provides backup for Soto. With Turner leading off and Soto either hitting right behind the shortstop or a couple spots back, teams had the option of intentionally walking the 2020 National League batting champion. If Bell is hitting behind Soto and performing to his career tendencies, teams will be less likely to pitch around Soto.
True, Bell didn’t build off his monster 2019 campaign, and he doesn’t have another season that bears a resemblance to that campaign. Concurrently, he’s a switch hitter, and the power has been present throughout Bell’s career. Having a power outlet in the middle-to-back of the order changes the game for the Nationals.
With Turner getting on base via his consistent contact and speed and Soto performing at a Most Valuable Player Award level, Bell isn’t being asked to lead the offensive charge; he’s being asked to enhance it. Last season the Nationals were fourth in MLB in batting average (.264) but 10th in runs (293); they got a lot of runners on base but left a lot of runs on the basepaths. Bell will help get those runners across home plate.
The funny thing is if he hits like his 2019 self, Bell adds a third premier hitter to the order. Couple in those around the now “big three,” if you will, playing better and the Nationals offense can go toe-to-toe with anyone in the sport.
Defensively, Bell plays first, Turner holds down short, Kieboom plays the hot corner, and Castro plays second. Another option is moving Castro to third and starting Garcia at second if the Nationals feel Kieboom isn’t ready to start a full season at third base. Plus, Josh Harrison, who was re-signed to a one-year deal, can play both second, third, and left field; Washington has options in its infield.
Regarding what they surrendered to get Bell, MLB Pipeline ranked Crowe as the team’s number-three prospect and Yean as the team’s number-six prospect. The Nationals were able to acquire Bell, who’s under team control through 2022, without giving up Cade Cavalli and Jackson Rutledge, their previous two first-round draft selections, as well as Kieboom and Garcia. Crowe, 26, struggled to get his offerings across the plate in his brief time with the Nationals last season, albeit he could improve with more reps.
This trade was worth the price of admission for the Nationals. They got a first baseman and an offensive catalyst in the same trade with the same player; those were two things they had to add this offseason.