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Washington Nationals 2021: Josh Bell and Ryan Zimmerman the new 1B duo in D.C.

Last year it was supposed to be Ryan Zimmerman, Howie Kendrick, and Eric Thames at first base. This year it’s Zim and Josh Bell.

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MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Washington Nationals Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

New Nationals’ first baseman Josh Bell talked after being traded to Washington this winter about his relatively disappointing 2020 campaign with Pittsburgh’s Pirates, which saw the 28-year-old slugger put up a .226/.305/.364 line, three doubles, and eight home runs in 57 games and 223 plate appearances in MLB’s 60-game COVID campaign. He finished at -0.4 fWAR, and Bell said he never really got comfortable at the plate last season.

“[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,” he explained.

“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.”

Bell’s rough 2020 season followed a 2019 run in Pittsburgh which saw the Pirates’ 2011 2nd Round pick post a .277/.367/.569 line with career highs in doubles (37) and home runs (37), over 143 games and 613 PAs in a 2.5 fWAR campaign.

Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo said he wasn’t concerned about the on-field performance for Bell last season, telling reporters back in mid-December the club did their due diligence before making the trade which sent pitchers Eddie Yean and Wil Crowe to the Bucs.

“We do our due diligence on makeup, character, off the field, and that type of thing,” Rizzo said.

“The evaluation of on the field performance 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 said then that he was excited to get going with a team that had legitimate postseason aspirations after playing for a Pittsburgh club which finished 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 said back in December of his preparations for the 2021 campaign.

“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.”

The five-year veteran also said he was excited for the challenges of joining a new team and embracing the culture that’s been established in the nation’s capital.

“I love challenges,” Bell said. “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.”

In addition to Bell, the Nationals re-signed Ryan Zimmerman, who figures to back up at first base and provided a right-handed bat off the bench for Davey Martinez’s club. Zimmerman has a career .311/.390/.527 line vs left-handed pitchers (vs. Bell’s .232/.315/.410 line vs LHPs as a switch-hitter) so Zim will get plenty of starts against lefties, but the 36-year-old, 15-year veteran was clear a few weeks back that he knows what his role is at this point in his career.

“I train and I prepare myself to play every day,” Zimmerman said, “... so if something were to happen, or if something does happen and I have to start playing five or six days a week, I’ll be ready to play. Let me be clear, that’s not the plan. That’s not going to happen, because if that happens we’re in a bad spot, I’d rather play the games that I’m supposed to play and Josh hits 35 home runs and we win 95 games and I think that’s the better plan, but I prepare myself to play every day.”

Ideally, as Zimmerman said, he will be a part-time player for the Nationals in his sixteenth big league season, and Bell will get the bulk of the starts and produce something close to his .261/.349/.466 career line and his 162-game average of 31 doubles and 25 home runs.

That’s fine with Zimmerman, who said he would have had a similar role had he not opted out of playing last season.

“My role last year was going to be diminished compared to what it had been,” Zimmerman explained after signing his 1-year/$1M deal for 2021.

Zimmerman signed a 1-year/$2M deal last winter, before opting out, after he’d earned $18M in the final year of the 6-year/$100 he signed with Washington in 2012.

Bell agreed to a 1-year/$6.5M deal for 2021, avoiding arbitration with the Nationals.

“I think as I finished up that last contract extension,” Zimmerman said, “I think myself and the team were kind of I guess gearing towards not playing 120-130-140 games, whatever it was, it’s a lot harder to do that when someone is making $20M. If you’re paying someone that much money you’re going to play every day. I always prepare to play every day, but for me personally and for the team, moving forward in my career I think not playing every day, playing against — days where your matchups are nice against a pitcher that’s pitching that day, not only does it help me succeed, but it helps me keep my body healthy.”

Zimmerman staying healthy, which has been a struggle for him in recent years, and a return to (preferably 2019) form for Bell, will go a long way in determining how far the Nationals go in 2021, after 2020’s disappointing follow-up to the club’s World Series win in 2019.