Josh Bell put up a .156/.219/.333 line with five doubles, four home runs, seven walks, and 30 Ks in his first 26 games and 105 plate appearances with Washington’s Nationals last season, following a Christmas Eve 2020 deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates which brought the 29-year-old slugger to D.C.
But the 6’4’’, 255-pound, switch-hitter turned things around after the rough start, (which did follow a stretch on the COVID-IL for Bell and others on the team), and from mid-May through the end of the year, the six-year veteran posted a .286/.376/.510 line, 19 doubles, 23 home runs, 58 walks, and 71 Ks in 118 games and 463 PAs.
“The numbers were what I expected,” Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo said of Bell’s totals when he spoke with reporters over the final weekend of the season back in early October 2021.
“He’s been terrific for us all season, he had a terrific Spring Training, then got sidetracked with COVID and I think he — that he turned the naysayers early in the season into believers, and as a guy that at 28, 29 years old, and a career .800 OPS, and that was the player we traded for and that’s the player we got. Beyond that his impact in the clubhouse is irreplaceable. He’s been terrific in the clubhouse, and he’s been a mentor for the young players, and he’s a shining example of what a big leaguer should be.”
Bell, who is under team control through the end of this season, showed up for his second year with the Nationals and impressed his manager again early this spring.
“He looks in tremendous shape,” Davey Martinez told reporters last week, when asked about his options at first base now that Ryan Zimmerman is retired, and how often he thinks he’ll have Bell out there this season, with the DH spot an option as well.
“If he could play 150-something games, that’s awesome, but yeah, man, if our DH needs a day off, we can possibly put him as DH.”
Martinez also talked during the first week of Spring Training about the impact the signing of veteran designated hitter Nelson Cruz could have on the lineup and on the hitters expected to hit in the middle of the order around the Nats’ new bat, namely Bell and Juan Soto.
“You talk about Soto, you talk about Cruz, for me, the guy to me who [it] is really going to benefit and help too, is Josh Bell,” the manager said.
“I mean, all of a sudden you put Josh Bell with these two guys, I think he’s going to get better. I really [do]. Like I said, he came to this Spring Training in such good shape and ready, and he looks great.
“So having those three guys in the middle of our lineup, it’s going to be fun to watch.”
Hitting in front of or behind Cruz in the lineup, and just having him on the team, really, the skipper suggested, will be beneficial for a hitter like Bell, who will get a first-hand look at how the 41-year-old, 17-year veteran handles things on a daily basis.
“I think the fact that if Josh hits behind Nellie, he gets to appreciate him, watch him work, his routine. That helps,” Martinez explained.
“A guy up there watching pitches, taking pitches, I think it’s going to help Josh a lot, plus the communication before the games. Nellie ... he studies pitchers, he’s a student of the game, he knows a lot of different things, so it’s going to be interesting to watch those guys collaborate and talk before each and every series and each game, so it will be fun.”
“Of course, I think he’s going to help Juan out tremendously,” Martinez added.
“But I think he’s going to help out everybody. He stretches our lineup out really, really well, so like I said, I’m looking forward to those guys bonding with him, and him just being him. I’ve known him for many, many years, he’s a great teammate, unbelievable teammate, and he cares about competing and winning.”
Martinez also talked last week about what he learned about Bell during their first season together in 2021, when the first baseman’s persistence after the slow start made a strong impression on his manager.
“He was — the one thing about Josh, he puts the time in and the effort and works hard. And what happened to not just him but everybody in the beginning of the year [COVID], slowed everybody down ... and he was in that cage every day, trying to get back in shape, trying to get his timing back.
“He’s got a very unique swing and it’s all based on timing. This year I think he really worked on slowing everything down and keeping everything simple, and right now, I’m watching him take batting practice, and he’s hitting the ball well.
“He understands now that there’s not just one month of the season, the season is nine months for us, so I always tell him, I said, ‘Hey, don’t worry about your numbers now.’
“I said, ‘At the end of the year your numbers are going to be what they — typically what they are, give or take ten points if you’re a little bit lucky or whatever, but he took that to heart last year, because at the beginning he felt like he let us down. And I said, you’re not letting us down. Believe me, I know what you go through, I know the struggles, but you’ve just got to show up every day, each and every at-bat, and do the best you can.”
Did Bell’s work on the field, in the clubhouse, and out in the community convince the club he is a potential extension candidate? He’s arbitration-eligible again this year, after he and the team avoided arbitration last winter, agreeing on a 1-year/$6.35M deal in January 2021.
He is projected get a raise to around $10M this season. So, any possibility?
“We haven’t discussed it yet,” Rizzo told reporters when asked about a potential extension on Day 1 of Spring Training.
“He’s an arbitration candidate for us, so we wouldn’t do anything before we get a deal done in arbitration anyways.”