On Christmas Eve, the Washington Nationals sent pitchers Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean to the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for former All-Star first baseman Josh Bell. As a Nationals writer, this move was intriguing, obviously; as a Pirates writer, as well, this move was doubly interesting. As closely as I’ve followed Pittsburgh for most of my life, I watched Bell grow up into the major leaguer he’s become. So, what are the Nats getting?
In 2016, I watched Bell play first base for the Indianapolis Indians in a game against the Durham Bulls. I leaned over to my then-girlfriend (now wife) and told her he was the future face of the Pirates. In many ways, I was right. It’s just that while he was the prominent player on the roster, the team mostly wasn’t very good, and never really competed for a playoff spot.
The interesting thing about Josh Bell is that we’ve very likely seen what he can do at his best; we’ve also seen what appears to be his floor.
More interesting: Those two production levels came in consecutive seasons.
In 2019, Bell was a stud, he was a dude, he was the guy the Pirates’ front office had envisioned while he was coming up through the system. He had a wRC+ of 135, an OPS of .936, blasted 37 home runs, and contributed 2.5 fWAR for the black and gold.
In a shortened 2020 season, he didn’t quite see the same success. He had about one-third of his regular plate appearances last season: He finished with a 78 wRC+, .669 OPS, eight home runs, and -0.4 fWAR. A massive regression.
The good news is this: While Bell’s 2020 was disappointing, nobody really expects that he’s going to remain at those depths. If you want to see which numbers I singled out to help explain Bell’s 2020 woes, check out this Bucs Dugout article I published six days before his exit from Pittsburgh.
The real question is whether Bell will be able to replicate his production from 2019. That’s harder to nail down at this point. On the one hand, Bell won’t have as much pressure to be “the guy” because the Nats already have their share of “guys.” He’ll be an important role piece if this team is to have success but he doesn’t have to carry the load like he needed to in Pittsburgh.
We can only speculate as to whether or not Bell was up for the task in salvaging what was left in Pittsburgh. If he wasn’t, nobody can really blame him. Resurrecting the Pirates was a Herculean effort from Andrew McCutchen and ever since his decline in production with the Pirates and ultimate departure, the Pirates haven’t had much punch to them. All that to say, a change of scenery could do wonders for Bell after a sharp decline last season.
From Bell moving forward, I would expect around a 110 wRC+, 22-28 home runs, .890 OPS, and 1.8 fWAR. For Bell’s tag that the Nats will foot, that amount of production would get the job done, particularly if the Nationals prove to be competitive. As I mentioned, Bell will be an important role player in an organization where he doesn’t have to be the star. He might just thrive under those conditions.