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Josh Bell is back in a familiar place, as familiar questions about his future linger

Josh Bell made his second return to Pittsburgh after the Pirates traded him to the Nationals in December 2020. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
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PITTSBURGH — Late Thursday night, a fraction of about 9,000 fans managed a faint cheer for Josh Bell, who was once the man at PNC Park and now plays first base for the Washington Nationals. Eyes closed, it could have been mistaken for a reaction to a video screen gimmick. The stadium was relatively empty. There was a hockey game across town. It was pretty cold, to be fair, with sharp winds dropping the “feels like” temperature to the 40s.

But noise levels aside, returns to Pittsburgh will always be meaningful for Bell. The Pirates drafted him and gave him his first chance in the majors. This weekend, he’s back with Noa, a baby girl who was born in December. In the 16 months since he was traded from the Pirates to the Nationals, Bell has felt so much change around him, from Washington’s clubhouse to his own priorities. At least one thing, though, seems familiar.

In Pittsburgh, as the star of a perpetually rebuilding team, Bell faced frequent questions about his future. Would he sign long term? Would the Pirates flip him in a deal for prospects, just like most everyone else with promise? How badly did he want to hang around and build something where his career took off?

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And in Washington, as a sort of middle-aged roster piece — not baseball young, not a fading veteran — Bell is eight games into his final year of team control. So naturally, will he sign long term? Will the Nationals flip him in a trade deadline deal for prospects, just like they did with eight players in July? Or how much does Bell want to hang around, hit behind Juan Soto and see this rebuild through?

“I feel like I’ve been traded, I’ve been quote-unquote the face of a franchise, and there are times I’ve been in the big leagues where I feel like I’m not going to be here for long,” Bell, 29, said toward the end of spring training. “I’ve been on the roller coaster ride for a long time now, so I know the most important thing for me to focus on is whatever I’m doing in the moment, the next at-bat.

“I know that sounds cliche. But I can only control not having any regrets about what I do, right? If I put in all the work, I’m going to be in a good place. I love the Nationals and D.C. It’s been a lot of fun and really refreshing, and I’ve always thought I’d like to be here. I just have to do my part, and it will all work out.”

Last spring, his first with the Nationals, Bell contracted the coronavirus, missed the start of the season and then slumped until mid-May. His final numbers — 27 homers, 88 RBI, an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .823 — reflected both a rough beginning and a monster rebound. But it was another stat, the 22 times Bell grounded into a double play, that irked him most.

His previous career high was 15 in 2017, his first full season. And with Soto reaching base in a league-best 46.5 percent of his plate appearances, Bell, a switch hitter, felt he left a ton of RBI on the table. He thought his swing plane and launch angle were off, keeping him from shooting those grounders over the shift and through the right-center gap. RBI is no longer considered a sound measure of individual offensive success, because it requires teammates to be on base and is way more contextual than advanced rate statistics. Yet don’t expect to get that past Bell.

“There’s an art to it,” said Bell, who has 11 hits, nine RBI and two homers through Washington’s first nine games, a stark contrast to last April. “There’s elements of being on time, of being able to hit off-speed pitches, of beating a pitcher when he’s coming at you with his best stuff. For me, this past season, I felt like I was just beating every one of those pitches into the ground and then hitting a solo shot off a first-pitch mistake later in the game. That’s not me.”

Bell’s ideal RBI total is around 120. Hitting behind Soto and Nelson Cruz this year makes that feel especially attainable. In the visitors’ clubhouse Thursday, ahead of a 9-4 loss to the Pirates, MLB Network showed that Bell had either scored or driven in half of the Nationals’ 26 runs in 2022. He walked beneath the television without looking up. A few feet away, reporters lingered for an interview about his Pittsburgh roots. On the field, a child wearing his Pirates jersey waited for a hug and picture.

Asked last week about extending Bell’s contract, Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo told reporters Soto remains his top priority. The 23-year-old outfielder turned down a 13-year, $350 million offer in November. If Washington can lock up Soto — a process further complicated by the potential sale of the team — future payrolls will be built around his megadeal.

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It’s just likely Bell’s future has to be deliberated long before Soto’s takes shape. Their manager, Dave Martinez, wants his first baseman to stay put.

“Absolutely,” Martinez said Wednesday. “He’s a professional through and through. So I just want him not to worry about that and just go out there every day and play the game the right way. He does that.”