Josh Bell was acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates in late December, with the Washington Nationals bringing the 28-year-old, switch-hitting first baseman to D.C. after an ugly 2020 campaign for the veteran infielder, who finished the 60-game season at .226/.305/.364 in 57 games and 223 plate appearances, over which he hit three doubles and eight homers, and was worth -0.4 fWAR.
Bell’s struggles in the COVID campaign did, however, follow a 2019 campaign in which he posted a .277/.367/.569 line with career highs in doubles (37) and home runs (37) in a +2.4 fWAR season with the Bucs.
To back Bell up, the Nats brought Ryan Zimmerman back for a 16th season in the nation’s capital, after he opted out of playing in 2020 out of concern for the health of his family.
The first base duo is in West Palm Beach now, working together as they get ready for 2021.
“They’re communicating well. Zim is a veteran guy. We all know him as the captain around here,” manager Davey Martinez told reporters when he spoke via Zoom on Thursday.
“He’s welcomed Josh with open arms. He’s there to support him and help him. With that being said, I need them both healthy. They’re both going to get playing time. But Zim understands that Josh is going to get most of the playing time, but Zim, as we talk to him, he’s going to get an opportunity to play too. So we just want these guys to break camp healthy. Like I said, they’re both working together and I know Josh is watching Zim over there and getting some pointers over there at first base.”
“It’s been great,” Bell said of working together with Zimmerman early in Spring Training.
“The first few days of camp we’re just getting our routines down, just trying to work on arm slot to second base, footwork, staying through ground balls.
“Good ongoing conversation that we’re having and just try to pick his brain over there as much as I can.”
The two of them have plenty of time to get to know one another better as they work out in groups with other infielders and bench (and infield) coach Tim Bogar.
“We’ve kind of had it the last couple years, where I don’t want to say it’s like a platoon or committee, or you work with those guys that you play the same position with, so you’re taking ground balls every single day with them,” Zimmerman said.
“You’re usually working in the cage the same time that they are because the groups rotate together, so you get to know them really fast.
“And playing against Pittsburgh every year, and talking to him then, he’s an awesome guy.”
“He’s a lot of fun to be with every day,” Zimmerman added.
“He’s always in a good mood, you like working with guys like that, so it’s been great so far, and I look forward to getting to know him even more.”
Going through the paces that Bogar is putting them through, has given Zimmerman an up-close look at just how talented Bell really is at first base.
“I think Bogie is such a good infield instructor, we’ve worked together for the last whatever it’s been, 3-4 years, and he’s so good at just creating consistency,” Zimmerman explained.
“And we’ve been around Josh for I guess a week or 10 days, whatever it’s been, I think he got here a few days early too, but for as big as he is, I think — I didn’t really know, but he’s a lot more athletic than — I don’t want to say, ‘you think he would be,’ because I don’t want to make people assume that he’s not athletic, but he is a big guy, but he can really move, but he’s light on his feet and he wants to work, he wants to get better, and so I think for all the talk about his defense, he’s been really good.
“I’m looking forward to seeing him play — and for us to win and for us to have success, he’s going to have to play and he’s going to have to get back to what he did in 2019, and I think he’s worked really hard this offseason and I think Bogie is doing a good job of — baseball is all about being confident and the more that we can work together, the more that we can put him in situations where he succeeds and he feels comfortable, I think you guys are going to see how good of a fielder he really is.”
Having that sort of support from a franchise icon, who knows his playing-every-day days are behind him, Bell said, is great, especially considering who the player.
“It’s nice,” he said. “I was looking at the awards the other day. And I was looking at some of the numbers he put up over the years.
“Some of the Silver Sluggers, his All-Star campaigns, Player of the Month. Just to be able to have that guy in my corner, being able to pick his brain as much as I can. He’s faced all the guys that I’m going to face this year. He knows all the umpires, he knows all the zones. He knows the division more than anybody else on this squad. So, for me to be able to have him in my corner, I’m definitely excited to have it. I’m looking forward to it. I just can’t wait for that first game.”
For their manager, who has Bell’s switch-hitting power (he is better from the left side vs RHPs - .271/.360./485 career vs .232.315.410 vs RHP as a LHB), and right-handed hitting Zimmerman (.311/.390/.527 career vs LHPs) to face the tough lefties the Nats see, it is a luxury.
“It’s not just a right-handed bat, it’s the kind of bat that Zim brings,” Martinez qualified.
“He’s a professional hitter. He hits lefties really, really well, and his defense is really good over there.
“It was nice to bring him back. He’s the face of this organization. And he will be for a long time, he really will be, so to have him back in that clubhouse, talking to the young players, it’s awesome.”