The Washington Nationals’ trade with Pittsburgh for Josh Bell is certainly a boost for an offense that struggled in 2020. Fans knew they were going to have trouble replacing Anthony Rendon’s and other departed players’ bats in the lineup, and they were right.
Of the new players in 2020, only Josh Harrison (.278/.352/.418) came even close to putting up the kind of offensive numbers needed to complement or even support the leadership of Juan Soto and Trea Turner, even in a 60-game season.
Eric Thames (.203/.300/.317) and Carter Kieboom (.202/.344/.212) were flat out busts, and Howie Kendrick (.275/.320/.385) was never healthy enough to be a consistent contributor.
That sent general manager Mike Rizzo back to the drawing board at first base, where he was able to swing one of the deals he’s known for, grabbing a relatively inexpensive, high-upside player still under team control for a couple of pitching prospects, Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean.
The result is that, if he can be coached into developing a consistent swing, is that Bell and Juan Soto would give the Nats a 1-2 lefty punch they’ve never had, in a ballpark with a 370-foot right-field power alley that just begs for balls to be hit over the out-of-town scoreboard.
But digging a little deeper, we can dust a little haze off the crystal ball and foresee a few other things that the trade for Bell will likely portend.
Ryan Zimmerman will be back...
It’s well known that the cornerstone of the Nationals franchise opted out of the COVID-shortened 2020 season out of concern for the health of his family, including that of his mother, who has multiple sclerosis, and his newborn son.
It was a sensible move for a veteran ballplayer who has stated publicly that his family is his top priority, and that he no longer needs baseball income to provide for them.
But Bell’s biggest shortcomings are on defense, where in three full seasons plus two seasons of 35 games or fewer, he has posted a -32 defensive runs saved (per Fangraphs) and a -5 outs above average (per MLB stats).
That begs for a defensive replacement to spell him in late innings or even to platoon against left-handed pitching. No one at the Nats’ disposal is better qualified than Zim, whose defensive stats do not tell his whole story. Yes, his DRS in 3907 2⁄3 innings is -2, which is better than Bell’s for his whole career. But the man is responsible for the only 3-3-5 triple play in major league history and is known for his diving defensive stops, including one that contributed to the Nats’ NLCS sweep of St. Louis.
Zimmerman will be playing first base in the late innings and against left-handers if he signs on for another year in D.C.
There will be a DH in the National League, if not this year, in the near future...
Unless his hitting never comes around, Bell will be a National for at least two seasons.
It does not make sense that Mike Rizzo would invest in a player with Bell’s defensive capabilities if there were not at least a good chance he could DH.
Interleague play in AL parks will certainly give Ball a chance to hit in the DH slot, but he could be an excellent DH candidate if it’s back the National League this year.
Commissioner Rob Manfred imposed the DH on the NL, expanded the postseason field, and introduced some other quirks because COVID shortened the 2020 season.
Those rules will expire unless the owners and the players’ union agree to extend them.
However, with the current collective bargaining agreement set to expire after the 2021 season, the two sides could be anxious to agree early on things that might not be contentious, like the DH and expanded postseason, so they can spend more time negotiating serious issues, such as the owners’ contention that they suffered more than $3 billion in operating losses in 2020, despite paying prorated player salaries. Teams have already slashed non-player payrolls and consolidated the minor leagues and left 42 teams without big league support. Owners will be seeking more salary concessions from players who have already taken a cut.
The Nats will acquire at least one more pitcher...
The Nats gave up two pitching prospects in the deal for Bell. The last time they surrendered multiple pitching prospects in an offseason trade, they shipped Lucas Giolito, Dane Dunning, and Reynoldo Lopez to the Chicago White Sox for Adam Eaton. They then bolstered their pitching corps by trading for Austin Adams and Kyle McGowin and signing Matt Albers and Joe Nathan.
Only Albers worked out among the pitchers they signed that year, but the club still obtained more arms to replace the ones they lost.
The Nats will have an opening in their rotation with the loss of Aníbal Sánchez. Although, Erick Fedde, Joe Ross and Austin Voth will all be competing for two open spots in the rotation, there are still many free-agents available who could be considered more reliable and experienced than any of the three. Stephen Strasburg missed most of the 2020 season with a carpal-tunnel injury, and Max Scherzer worked through multiple injuries in the 2019 World Series championship season. Odds are that the Nats will need some more depth in 2021.
With an ice-cold free agent market driving down prices, and potential trades still on the horizon, don’t discount Mike Rizzo’s ability to snag a fourth ace to keep pace with Atlanta’s additions of Charle Morton and Drew Smyly and San Diego’s trades for Blake Snell and Yu Darvish.