The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Josh Bell, the Nationals added a big bat. Now Mike Rizzo might search for another.

Josh Bell provides the Nationals with the middle-of-the-order bat they've coveted this offseason. But are they finished building the middle of their lineup for 2021? (David J. Phillip/AP)

Josh Bell and his dad were about to hit a Christmas Eve workout when Bell’s phone buzzed. He had a text message and a missed call from Pittsburgh Pirates General Manager Ben Cherington. Finding that odd and a sure sign something was up, Bell stepped into the afternoon in Irving, Tex., right outside his parents’ house, to call Cherington back.

As he sensed, Bell was being dealt by the Pirates more than nine years after they drafted him. He was headed to the Washington Nationals. And in that moment, after a short talk with Cherington, Bell’s career took a sharp turn: He went from the headliner of a bad team to a club fixed on contending again in 2021. He no longer would be the subject of constant trade rumors. He is a possible solution to the Nationals’ need for middle-of-the-order offense — and not just another pawn in Pittsburgh’s low-cost rebuild.

“It’s definitely different. Especially knowing that the team in place, the team is very ready to go,” Bell, 28, said of Washington on a Saturday video conference call with reporters. “It seems like a machine, so I’m just ready to be one of the turning parts of it.”

Bell’s arrival invites a big question: What’s next for the Nationals?

Before the trade, in a virtual meeting with reporters Dec. 15, Mike Rizzo was direct in describing his intentions. Rizzo’s stated goal was “to get the best bat that we can.” The purpose, he explained, was “to surround the guys we have in the middle of the lineup already with some more bats and make offensive production a little more of a priority this offseason.” In the first answer, Rizzo keeps it singular — “the best bat that we can” — meaning Bell could be his biggest get of the offseason. But in the next answer, he pluralizes the wish list — “some more bats” — which means the Bell trade could be a starting point.

This could be an unfair parsing of Rizzo’s words. In the flow of a news conference, it’s hard to expect him to avoid the occasional misplaced consonant. Yet Bell’s salary for 2021, projected to be roughly $6 million, leaves room to add another quality hitter, should the Nationals see a hole for one. On Saturday, when asked whether that’s in play, Rizzo both praised Bell and kept all possibilities open. In doing so, the latest version of his plan was less clear.

“Josh is a big acquisition for us. He’s the middle-of-the-lineup bat that we were looking for,” Rizzo said. “Again, we’re never done improving the club, and if we see an opportunity to improve the club offensively, we’ll certainly be aggressive in trying to get that thing done. We still have options in the trade avenues and in the free agent avenues. We’re going to continue to be aggressive and try to put together a championship-caliber club.”

Rizzo was more direct while discussing how this acquisition could affect Ryan Zimmerman. With Bell on board and after Howie Kendrick retired Monday, Zimmerman emerged as a logical backup first baseman. Bell, a switch hitter, is notably better from the left side. Zimmerman could spell him against left-handed pitchers. And since the end of 2019, Zimmerman has maintained he either will play in Washington or retire.

Howie Kendrick was an unlikely October hero for the Nationals, but he also was so much more

The 36-year-old agreed to a one-year, $2 million deal in January before opting out of the 2020 season in June. A contract for 2021 probably would be similar, if not a bit cheaper, and negotiated closer to the start of spring training.

“I’d put it this way: The acquisition of Josh Bell isn’t going to prohibit us from looking for a good right-handed hitter that either comes off the bench or plays multiple positions or something like that,” Rizzo said Saturday. “We haven’t ruled out a Zim reunion. That skill set still fits on our roster.”

Beyond that, though, Rizzo was vague in the way general managers often are in December. Earlier in the month, he noted the best way to upgrade the offense was at first base or the corner outfield spots. Accounting for Bell at first, that would place Washington’s focus on landing a right or left fielder for the meat of its order. But that assumes the meat of the order is unfinished.

The corner outfield market includes Michael Brantley, George Springer, Marcell Ozuna, Joc Pederson and Kyle Schwarber, among others. The Nationals almost certainly will sign someone for right or left, with Rizzo recently calling Andrew Stevenson a good fourth outfielder or platoon option. They also could use catcher or third base as a way to deepen the lineup.

At the moment, Washington has Yan Gomes behind the plate, Bell at first, Starlin Castro at second, Trea Turner at shortstop, Carter Kieboom at third, Juan Soto in left and Victor Robles in center. Josh Harrison and Stevenson are bench pieces. There is an opening in either right or left. The Nationals have to add a catcher to pair with Gomes. Then they need a fourth starter and perhaps a bullpen arm.

They are hoping Bell is much closer to what he was in 2019 — an all-star with 37 homers — than the guy who slumped through 2020. But the coming steps of their offseason will really be shaped by how willing they are to spend. Bell cost two pitching prospects and is under team control for two more years. If there is another flashy addition, the price is likely to go up.

“It’s definitely exciting times,” Bell said. “It’s everybody’s dream to go into spring training and have that expectation to be in the postseason, to hunt for that championship again.”