The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As deadline looms, Josh Bell waits to reflect too much on time with Nats

A free agent after this season, Josh Bell is expected to be traded before Tuesday's 6 p.m. trade deadline. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Josh Bell is almost 30 and doesn’t have a professional home. Sometimes he thinks about that.

“Certainty is always a plus in this game — a plus I haven’t really experienced,” Bell said in the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse Saturday afternoon. “But as for when I’ll have a chance to dictate the next steps of my career, I have no clue what’s going to happen between now and then. It feels very far away.”

Bell is eligible to reach free agency this offseason. In the meantime, he’s expected to be traded before Tuesday’s 6 p.m. deadline, sparking a bit of reflection over the weekend. True to form, though, Bell nimbly sidestepped most questions about his immediate future. He was preparing to face St. Louis Cardinals starter Dakota Hudson and his tough sinker. He doesn’t know where he will play or live Wednesday, which is the truth. The first baseman has been the subject of rumors for weeks, leading friends and family to text him their thoughts or encouragement. In response, he is trying to stay off social media.

The Houston Astros were a popular prediction for Bell until they traded for Trey Mancini on Monday. As for the return for the Nationals, maybe what the New York Yankees traded for outfielder Andrew Benintendi — three minor league pitchers, none in the top 10 of New York’s system — is instructive, because Bell is having a better offensive season but offers less in the field than Benintendi. Maybe the market for Bell slims some because the Boston Red Sox potentially are shopping J.D. Martinez, a right-handed rental bat who has made back-to-back all-star teams.

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Or maybe, Bell suggested, “we can all wait until Tuesday and talk about it then.”

Even before he finished the line, Bell cracked into a smile. The switch hitter knows what drives the conversation in late July. Yet he also knows that, down the line, he would love to be on a team that isn’t selling, resetting, rebuilding each year. Bell debuted with the Pirates in 2016 and played in part of five seasons for Pittsburgh. After the fifth, he was dealt to the Nationals for a pair of minor league arms on Christmas Eve 2020. And in both of his summers in Washington, the Nationals will have moved further away from winning games.

A year ago, they shipped out eight of Bell’s teammates for 12 unproven players. This week, they could move Bell and star outfielder Juan Soto if a steep, steep asking price is met. Bell is having his best year yet, entering Monday with a .302 batting average, a .385 on-base percentage and a .493 slugging percentage in 433 plate appearances. He had started 102 of the Nationals’ 103 contests. His glove has improved at first. He just finally wants a chance in October.

“That’s what everyone is after, right?” Bell asked. “Being on a good team is fun. If I were to have to sign a shorter-term deal to be on a winning team in the future, I would definitely weigh that.

“Think about us last year,” he continued, his eyes widening a bit. “I came in with Juan, Trea [Turner], [Kyle] Schwarber and a bunch of other guys in the lineup. We had some horses in the rotation. But we had some tough breaks in July, and if the postseason was expanded, then maybe we don’t ever sell like we did. … Or who knows, maybe if we don’t get swept by the Orioles, none of this happens how it has. It was cool to be in a clubhouse that knew it could be something great. That’s just not how it panned out.”

There wasn’t regret in Bell’s voice. No, the tone sounded more like appreciation for having played with Soto, Turner and Schwarber — and then with Nelson Cruz, one of his childhood heroes, this year.

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Bell and his wife, Lia, also have talked about living in D.C. again one day. He is, as of Monday morning, the player ambassador for the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy. He raised his hand so he could connect with kids from around the city and learn more about its less-privileged neighborhoods. Noa, their baby daughter, will always say Washington was her first home, even if her earliest memories form elsewhere.

Their first season here, they lived just a few blocks from the stadium in Navy Yard. Then, because they loved visiting Georgetown so much, they got a spot there this season, giving Bell quite the drive home from work.

“Going past the monuments all lit up at night, it’s pretty damn special,” Bell said, seeming almost wistful for something lost. His last big moment with Nationals fans could be his go-ahead three-run shot in Saturday’s win over the Cardinals. But hours before that homer reached the seats, he was careful about getting ahead of himself.

“We’ll see what happens,” he maintained. “I can’t play GM and first base at the same time.”