The agreement comes with a few obvious pluses for Washington: Bell, 28, is under team control for two more seasons. He is expected to make roughly $6 million in 2021, his second year of arbitration eligibility, which should leave room for the Nationals to keep spending this winter. And while he struggled in 2020, as many players did in a shortened schedule, Bell hit 37 homers and had a .936 on-base-plus-slugging percentage the year before, when he was an all-star for the first time. That hitter, and not the one from this past summer, is who the Nationals hope will complement Juan Soto and Trea Turner for the foreseeable future.
“It’s very clear to us that this was a decision we had to make,” Pirates General Manager Ben Cherington said Thursday, adding on a video call with reporters that the sides had been discussing Bell for a few weeks. “And although it’s difficult, as much as we appreciate Josh and respect Josh, our focus, more than that, is on the Pirates and building a winning team, a team that our fans can be proud of for a long time.”
Bell is expected to speak with reporters Saturday. In the meantime, the Nationals will celebrate a cost-friendly addition, whether measured by payroll or the players they sent in return. Both Crowe and Yean were ranked in the top 10 of Washington’s low-rated farm system. Crowe, 26, made his major league debut in 2020 and had command issues that led to an 11.88 ERA in three starts. Yean, 19, was signed by the Nationals out of the Dominican Republic in 2017. He has not pitched above low Class A ball, but his upside made him the centerpiece of the Pirates’ haul, according to two people with knowledge of the negotiations.
Cherington noted Thursday that the Pirates see Crowe and Yean as future major league starters. Crowe, he added, could even compete for a rotation spot in 2021. But many factors made Pittsburgh the right trading partner for the Nationals and Bell the right trade piece.
Pirates ownership has long been reticent to ink long-term contracts for expensive players. That Bell was heading toward one — especially if he got back on track next year — lent leverage to interested teams.
Bell struck out 59 times and finished with a .305 on-base percentage last season, but it was only a 57-game sample size. His average exit velocity didn’t dip much from 2019 to 2020, showing he could have had bad luck. He didn’t chase pitches out of the strike zone at a higher rate, showing that his approach at the plate didn’t change despite the poor results. And yet a slump that lasted less than half a normal season probably drove down the asking price. Internally, the Nationals don’t believe they gave up a lot to fill a glaring hole, according to a person with knowledge of their thinking. They were excited about Yean, lukewarm on Crowe and, in the end, very happy with this swap.
“In order to build that winning team, it’s going to take difficult decisions at times,” the Pirates’ Cherington said. “This is one of them. But we’re excited about the pitchers we got in the deal.”
The question now is how adding Bell affects the rest of the Nationals’ roster. When Rizzo stated his goal of improving the offense, he mentioned first base and corner outfield as the logical places to do that. Rizzo also addressed if the Nationals would have their usual rotation at first base, saying: “You could kind of split the position up like we’ve done at catcher for the last couple years … or go out and get yourself a legitimate 158-game, everyday first baseman.”
Bell is much more the latter. He played 143 games in 2019, 148 in 2018 and 159 in 2017. The Nationals didn’t trade for a part-time player, even if they typically employ two or three first basemen to share the spot. Bell is a work in progress defensively. If there is a universal designated hitter by 2022, he fits that role well. But for at least the coming season, Manager Dave Martinez will often pencil in Bell to play first and hit somewhere behind Soto.
As a switch hitter, Bell has been notably better from the left side. That makes it logical to pair him with a right-handed backup. After Howie Kendrick retired this week, that could clear the way for Ryan Zimmerman to return on another one-year deal. The offense otherwise needs a second catcher and a corner outfielder to fill an evolving order.
“Ownership has given me marching orders to put a championship-caliber club on the field,” Rizzo said Dec. 15. “That’s my purpose. That’s my focus. And that’s our objective this offseason.”
On that same video call, Rizzo stressed he is not operating with a tightened budget. If that’s really the case, the Nationals could add another big bat off a slow free agent market. Star catcher J.T. Realmuto is available. So are corner outfielders Michael Brantley, Marcell Ozuna, Joc Pederson, Kyle Schwarber and George Springer, though Springer has reportedly been courted by the New York Mets and Toronto Blue Jays, two teams expected to spend big in the weeks ahead.
The trade for Bell again shows that Rizzo is never shy when attacking a to-do list. He signed Daniel Murphy on Christmas Eve in 2015. In the 2018-19 winter, he added seven players before the new year. Now, as the Nationals look to rebound from a disappointing 2020, this deal could be the pinnacle of their offseason or just a splashy jumping-off point. What they decide will make all the difference.