Having told reporters eight days beforehand the Nationals were in the market for a middle-of-the-order type of bat this winter, with the likeliest fit at first base or in one of the corner outfield spots, Washington’s GM and President of Baseball Operations Mike Rizzo traded a couple of pitching prospects to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Christmas Eve for switch-hitting, power bat Josh Bell.
“Josh is a big acquisition for us, he’s the middle of the lineup bat that we were looking for,” Rizzo said in a Zoom call with the Nationals’ new first baseman and reporters on Saturday afternoon.
Rizzo said he followed Bell’s career from the time the Irving, Texas native was in high school at Dallas (TX) Jesuit College Prep, before he was drafted in the second Round in 2011 by Pittsburgh, and throughout his time with the Pirates, and he said he was satisfied with the work his club did before the deal was made to satisfy themselves that it was the right trade for the right player.
“We had plans in place for a bunch of different options that we had,” Rizzo explained. “Josh was definitely the trade option that we were looking at most intently. And it’s all a process of feeling out the Pirates: Is he available? What’s the acquisition cost? and that type of thing. We do our due diligence on makeup, character, off the field, and that type of thing.”
Bell struggled to a .226/.305/.364 mark in 2020’s 60-game COVID campaign, which saw the now-former Bucs’ first baseman hit just three doubles and eight home runs in 57 games and 223 plate appearances, over which he was worth -0.4 fWAR, but that rough season followed a 2019 run which saw him post a .277/.367/.569 line with career highs in doubles (37) and in home runs (37) over 143 games and 613 PAs in a 2.5 fWAR season.
“The evaluation of on the field performance,” Rizzo said on Saturday, “was something that we felt very, very comfortable with, and when we did our due diligence on the rest of the package, everything came back extremely positive.
“So we had absolutely no concerns about the player that we’re acquiring.”
Bell, who put up a combined .261/.349/.466 line with a 162-game average of 31 doubles and 25 home runs in his five seasons with the Pirates, chalked up his 2020 struggles to a lack of time to get properly prepared for the 60-game sprint of a season.
“It was definitely frustrating,” Bell said from his parents home in Irving, “... especially looking back at the season, but just to be able to unplug a little bit and kind of take an outward look in, I just feel like I didn’t really have a lot of time to get going.
“[I usually] get a lot of at bats in Spring Training, didn’t really get to do that in 2020 with the shortened Spring Training, shortened ABs, so I didn’t really have that kind of a grounding that I would like going into a season. Kind of caught fire a little bit during the course of the last stretch of the season, but couldn’t finish the way that I’d really like to, but going into next year with everything getting back to normal I’m excited to hopefully put 2020 behind me. I know a lot of players are. So, 2021, let’s go.”
Rizzo said that he and his colleagues looked at what went wrong for Bell in 2020, and think they can help him turn things around in ‘21.
“Analytically they loved him,” he said of the word from the front office in D.C. on Bell. “They love Josh, they loved his performance before, they think he’s a big bounce-back candidate to get back towards those ‘19 numbers.
“We’ll study his swing, and [Hitting Coach Kevin Long] and [Manager] Davey [Martinez] are as good as there is in the business on tweaking and making guys maximize their ability.
“We think that we’ve identified a few things. We’ve got a plan in place for him. We’re certainly not going to share it with anybody on the call, but we have a distinct and definitive plan in place and K-Long will be reaching out to Josh in the near future if he hasn’t already and K-Long and Davey will get with Josh long before Spring Training and set up a program and a thought process and an offensive plan of attack well before they get to West Palm.”
Joining a team with realistic postseason aspirations (after winning it all in 2019), Bell said, is obviously a best-case scenario after the Pirates finished in 3rd place (‘16), 4th place (‘17-’18), and 5th place (‘19-’20) in the NL Central in his five big league seasons.
“It’s definitely exciting times,” Bell, 28, with two years of team control left before free agency, said.
“I think that it’s everyone’s dream to go into Spring Training and to have that expectation to be in the postseason and to hunt for that championship again, so for me it’s something that I embrace with open arms.
“I love challenges, and this is going to be a new change going to camp expecting — especially with the team even before I was traded, those guys — it’s an All-Star team.
“It’s a team filled with extreme talents, it’s a team filled with champions, so just to be around the guys in the clubhouse I’m really excited for — and to really hunt with those guys, as time goes on, the months go on, and it starts becoming crunch time, I’m definitely excited to get this team turning.”
And even though they added the big middle-of-the-order bat they were looking for in Bell, Rizzo said the club is not done building the roster for 2021 and beyond.
“We’re never done improving the club,” Rizzo told reporters, “and if we see an opportunity to improve the club offensively, we’ll certainly be aggressive and try to get that thing done. We still have options in the trade avenues and in the free agent avenues, so we’re going to continue to be aggressive and try to put together a championship-caliber club.”