Last winter, Josh Bell found himself on the move. The Pirates, the only team for which he’d played in his career, were amidst a full rebuild. Bell was down to his final two seasons of arbitration control, and his escalating salaries were accounting for a larger percentage of Pittsburgh’s annually low payrolls.
Bell’s value last winter was complicated by a subpar 2020 showing. While he seemed to break out as a middle-of-the-order slugger with a .277/.367/.569 showing the year before, the switch-hitter stumbled during the shortened season. Bell appeared in 57 of the Bucs’ 60 games but he hit only .226/.305/.364 across 223 plate appearances. Of perhaps even greater concern, his strikeout rate spiked from 19.2% to a career-high 26.5%.
In need of a first baseman, the Nationals took a shot on a Bell bounceback. Washington acquired the Texas native for a pair of pitching prospects, Eddy Yean and Wil Crowe. While Bell didn’t completely regain his 2019 numbers, that move largely paid off for Nats’ general manager Mike Rizzo and his staff.
The 29-year-old appeared in 144 games and tallied 568 trips to the plate this past season. His 27 home runs were the second most of his career, trailing only his 37 longballs from 2019. Overall, Bell hit .261/.347/.476, an offensive showing that checked in 18 percentage points above the league average by measure of wRC+.
In addition to the improved results, Bell seemingly rediscovered his better process at the dish. He cut his strikeouts back to their typical range, punching out in only 17.8% of his plate appearances (about five points lower than average). His rate of contact on swings rebounded to 77.4% after cratering to 69% during his down year in 2020. Those better bat-to-ball skills came without sacrificing contact authority. Bell’s average exit velocity (92.5 MPH) and hard contact rate (52%) in 2021 were each career bests.
The one alarming aspect of Bell’s batted ball profile that carried over from 2020 was an uptick in ground-balls. While he’d only put 44% of his batted balls on the ground in his 2019 peak season, that spiked to 55.7% in 2020 and checked in at 53.5% this year. So Bell gave back some of the impact of his hard contact by hitting the ball into the turf, explaining why his power numbers didn’t bounce all the way back to 2019 form.
Even still, Bell had a decent season. His numbers were a bit better than the .257/.338/.454 leaguewide mark from first basemen. His 2019 campaign offers a hint of further offensive potential, and Bell had a quietly strong second half. From the All-Star Break onward, he hit .277/.381/.506 with more walks than strikeouts (albeit with a still concerning 55.9% grounder percentage).
That largely went unnoticed, though, because Washington had since fallen out of contention. While the Nats had hoped that a Bell resurgence would be part of a team-wide bounceback that’d keep them competitive in the NL East, things didn’t play out that way. Washington hovered around the periphery of contention for the season’s first few months, but a mid-July swoon kicked off a deadline teardown and organizational reboot.
Bell wasn’t part of that midseason sell-off, but there figures to be a bit more interest around the league after his strong play down the stretch. He’s now entering his final year of club control, and the Nationals don’t seem to have a plausible path to contention next season. It’s not clear Washington wants to entertain a multi-year rebuild — with Juan Soto under club control for three more seasons, there’s not much time to dawdle — but Bell’s ticketed for free agency next winter anyhow. Trading him coming out of the lockout wouldn’t be a sign of a longer-term rebuild so much as a recognition of their unlikely contention status in 2022.
The first base market didn’t move much before the transactions freeze. Freddie Freeman’s status seems to linger over both free agency and trade possibilities. Beyond Freeman, Anthony Rizzo remains on the open market. The A’s seem likely to trade Matt Olson. Perhaps the Yankees will move Luke Voit. Some of those dominoes may have to fall before there’s much progress on a potential Bell trade.
At a projected $10MM arbitration salary, he’s not going to bring back a return as strong as Oakland would get for Olson or New York would recoup for Voit. There’ll be teams in the Freeman/Olson markets who don’t land those stars, though. The upcoming collective bargaining agreement may introduce a universal designated hitter, leaving some National League clubs looking for another bat. Some of those teams figure to see Bell as a viable alternative to the market’s costlier options. Given the Nationals’ current competitive situation, it wouldn’t be too surprising if he’s donning a different uniform for the third straight year come Opening Day.