Bell, Zimmerman 'excited' to be 1B partners

February 25th, 2021

After the Nationals acquired in a Christmas Eve trade with the Pirates to become their starting first baseman, the next step was to find a right-hander who could complement his switch-hitting bat. The team didn’t have to look further than its longtime face of the franchise, .

With Zimmerman back for his 16th Major League season on a one-year deal, the Nats have an experienced duo at first base. The plan is for Bell to play the majority of the games, with Zimmerman as a backup, and the two already have begun to establish a chemistry in Spring Training.

“He's a lot of fun to be with every day,” Zimmerman said from West Palm Beach, Fla., on Thursday, the third day of full-squad workouts. “He's always in a good mood. You like working with guys like that. It’s been great so far, and I look forward to getting to know him more.”

Zimmerman lauded Bell for being light on his feet and having a strong desire to improve. Even though Bell, 28, has five years of Major League experience (including an All-Star selection in 2019), he’s eager to learn from the 36-year-old veteran. He has been picking Zimmerman’s brain as they go through fielding drills, working on footwork, arm slots to second base and staying through grounders.

“I was looking at some of the numbers he put up over the years -- some of the Silver Sluggers, his All-Star campaigns, Player of the Month [Awards],” Bell said. “He’s faced all the guys I’m going to face this year. He knows all the umpires, he knows all the zones, he knows the division more than anyone else on this squad. So for me to be able to have him in my corner, I’m definitely excited to have it.”

Zimmerman is returning in 2021 after electing not to play last season. He most recently hit .257/.321/.415 with a .736 OPS and six home runs over 52 games in ‘19. This season is an opportunity for him to be reunited with the club he missed when he was an onlooker for the first time in 15 years.

“Taking that season off last year also made me realize I’m nowhere close to being ready to not play anymore,” Zimmerman said. “I missed the game a lot. I missed what it takes to prepare every day. As you get older, there’s more and more you have to do to get ready, but I missed all of that as well. I’m just happy to be back, happy to be around the guys and joke around and laugh. You miss that.”

For Bell, 2021 is the first season in which he will not be wearing a Pirates uniform. The Nationals expect him to play a significant role on his new team -- manager Dave Martinez said there is a “very strong possibility” Bell could hit behind slugger Juan Soto. Bell slashed .226/.305/.364 with a .669 OPS in 57 games last season, and he is looking to return to his ‘19 form, when he drove in 116 runs and posted a .936 OPS.

“Me being an RBI guy, I love hitting with guys on,” Bell said. “I know [Soto] is going to be over there 40, 50 [percent] of the time. So that makes me happy, that makes me smile as a hitter, and hopefully I can put up some numbers with him.”

Martinez will have to sort out how to divvy up the games between Bell and Zimmerman. Playing time could be determined by matchups, pinch-hit situations and rest. Early in Spring Training, they are building a foundation that will help them seamlessly split first-base coverage in the regular season.

“For me, it's a good problem to have when you have two guys like that, that share a position,” Martinez said. “So we’ll utilize them both.”