On Christmas Eve, it Citizens of Washington sent pitchers Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean to Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for former All-Star first baseman Josh Bell. As a Nationals author, this move was obviously exciting; as a Pirates writer, this move was also doubly interesting. As closely as I’ve been following Pittsburgh for most of my life, I watched Bell grow up in the big leagues he’s become. So, what does Nats get?
In 2016, I saw Bell play first base for the Indianapolis Indians in a game against the Durham Bulls. I leaned over to my then girlfriend (now wife) and told her that he was the future face of the pirate. In many ways, I was right. It was just that while he was the prominent player on the list, the team was generally not very good, and never really competed for a playoff spot.
The interesting thing about Josh Bell is that we have probably seen what he can do at his best; we have also seen what appears to be his floor.
More interesting: These two production levels came in seasons in a row.
In 2019, Bell was a stud, he was a guy, he was the guy Pirates’ front office had envisioned as he came up through the system. He had a wRC + of 135, an OPS of .936, blew 37 home runs, and contributed 2.5 fWAR for black and gold.
In a shortened 2020 season, he did not see quite the same success. He had about a third of his regular record appearances last season: He finished with 78 wRC +, .669 OPS, eight home runs and -0.4 fWAR. A massive regression.
The good news is this: While Bells 2020 was disappointing, no one really expects him to remain at these depths. To see what numbers I’ve chosen to explain Bell’s 2020 issues, check them out this Buc’s Dugout article I published six days before he left Pittsburgh.
The real question is whether Bell will be able to replicate its production from 2019. It is more difficult to nail down at this point. On the one hand, Bell does not want so much pressure to be the “guy” because the Nats already have their share of “boys.” He will play an important role if this team is to succeed, but he does not have to carry the load as he needed in Pittsburgh.
We can only wonder if Bell was ready for the task of salvaging what was left in Pittsburgh. If he was not, no one can really blame him. Reviving the pirates was a herculean effort by Andrew McCutchen, and ever since his decline in pirate production and the ultimate departure, the pirates have not had much to do for them. All this to say that a change of scenery could do wonders for Bell after a sharp decline last season.
From Bell onwards, I expect around 110 wRC +, 22-28 home runs, .890 OPS and 1.8 fWAR. For Bell’s note that Nats will go, this amount of production will get the job done, especially if nationals prove to be competitive. As I mentioned, Bell will play an important role in an organization where he does not have to be the star. He can only thrive under these conditions.