December 12: The Guardians have made it official, announcing that they have signed Bell to a two-year deal.
December 6: The Guardians have agreed to a two-year, $33MM contract with free-agent first baseman Josh Bell, reports Jon Heyman of the New York Post. Bell, a client of the Boras Corporation, will be able to opt out of the contract after the first season of the deal.
It’s a short-term but lucrative annual deal for the 30-year-old Bell, who looked poised for a long-term commitment in free agency before a sluggish finish to the season following a trade to the Padres. The veteran switch-hitter opened the season on a tear with the Nationals and maintained that production into late July, but after slashing .301/.384/.493 with the Nats (143 wRC+), Bell hit just .192/.316/.271 in San Diego.
Ups and downs are nothing new for Bell, who at multiple points in his career has appeared on the cusp of solidifying himself as a star-caliber slugger, only to fall into a prolonged slump. Back in the first half of the 2019 season, for instance, the former No. 61 overall draft pick erupted with a .302/.376/.648 batting line and 27 home runs. That netted him what remains the only All-Star nomination of his career, but following the Midsummer Classic, Bell backtracked with a solid but unspectacular .233/.351/.429 slash.
His offensive doldrums spiraled out of control in 2020, when he turned in a career-worst .226/.305/.364 slash in the shortened 2020 season. Following that disappointing campaign, the Pirates sold low on the former top prospect by flipping his final two years of club control to the Nationals in exchange for righty Wil Crowe and minor leaguer Eddy Yean.
A month into Bell’s Nationals tenure, it looked to be more of the same, but he righted the ship in May. From May 1, 2021 through this year’s trade deadline, Bell came to the plate 945 times and recorded a stout .289/.373/.489 slash with 39 big flies, 46 doubles, an 11.5% walk rate and a 15.3% strikeout rate that’s far lower than many would expect from a 6’4″, 255-pound first baseman with 30-homer power.
In spite of that sizable frame and the clear raw power Bell possesses, however, he’s never really been a consistent power threat — at least not to the extent one would expect. The juiced-ball season in 2019 was his lone 30-homer campaign (37, to be exact), and his season-to-season home run totals have otherwise ranged between 12 (2018) and 27 (2021).
It’s hard not to wonder what might happen were Bell to commit to elevating the ball more, but that’s easier said than done for any hitter. Bell’s enormous 49.9% ground-ball rate is far higher than one would expect for a slugger of his stature, and he’s taken that mark north of 50% in each of the past three seasons, topping out with a mammoth 55.7% grounder rate in 2022. Since 2020, only five hitters in baseball have put the ball on the ground more frequently than Bell — a confounding trait for a switch-hitter with plus raw power. Three different teams have been unable to coax consistent power production from Bell, but the Guardians will give their best effort to unlock his maximum potential.
To be clear, Bell remains a well above-average hitter in the aggregate, even with the glut of grounders and a career punctuated thus far by peaks and valleys. Dating back to 2019, he’s been 20% better than the average hitter by measure of wRC+, and his career mark in that regard sits at 116 (16% better than average). Bell is a lifetime .262/.351/.459 hitter whose only below-average season at the plate came in the shortened 2020 season.
Also appealing to the Guardians was surely the fact that Bell, like so much of their team, is exceedingly difficult to strike out. No team in baseball fanned at a lower clip than the Guardians’ 18.2% last year — nor was anyone particularly close. Bell, who struck out at just a 15.8% rate in 2022, should fit right in. He’s kept his strikeout rate at 19% or lower each season other than that grisly 2020 campaign, and he’s also drawn walks in an excellent 11.8% of his 3406 career plate appearances.
All of that aligns well with Cleveland’s general offensive philosophy, and while it seems that Jose Abreu was the Guards’ first choice — Cleveland reportedly made him a three-year offer before he signed in Houston — Bell still adds some needed thump who can join Josh Naylor in splitting time at designated hitter and first base. Bell isn’t an all-world defender at first, but he’s improved his defensive ratings from sub-par to slightly above average in recent seasons, and the Guardians surely feel confident that he’s a reliable source of at least 15 to 20 homers with a robust on-base percentage. He’ll join Jose Ramirez as a switch-hitting, middle-of-the-order threat, continuing to give the Cleveland lineup plenty of balance.
If things go according to plan and Bell can ward off another prolonged slump to close out the season, he’ll be a strong candidate to exercise that opt-out provision and return to the open market a year from now. As previously laid out, the overall offensive track record for Bell is quite strong; had he not fallen into that San Diego swoon, he and Boras might have had a case for a contract upwards of five years in length. Depending on the extent of Bell’s success, the Guardians could even issue him a qualifying offer upon opting out.
We predicted that Bell would still be able to command a four-year deal around this AAV on our Top 50 free agent rankings, but the two-year term and opt-out provides some of the best of both worlds. If Bell performs well, he can collect a hearty salary in 2022 and try again for a lengthier deal a year from now. If not, he’ll at least have a second season around the going rate for a bat-first slugger of this nature. And, even if he forgoes the opt-out next offseason, a strong 2024 showing could position him for a multi-year deal.
From a payroll vantage point, Cleveland had ample room to plug him into the mix — history of low payrolls notwithstanding. Bell, assuming an even distribution of his $33MM guarantee, pushes the Guardians to just $35.3MM in guaranteed salary next season. Add in another $35.7MM in projected salaries for arbitration-eligible players (tip of the cap to MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz) and a slate of pre-arbitration players to round out the roster, and the Guardians will sit around the $87MM mark next season — at least as things currently stand.
The Guardians opened the 2021 season with just a $49.6MM payroll and were at $68.2MM to begin the 2022 campaign, but they won the AL Central in ’22 and are only five years removed from trotting out an Opening Day payroll of nearly $135MM. At least on paper, there should be room to make further additions, though that’ll depend on ownership’s willingness to further ramp up payroll as they look to repeat in a weak division.