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Nats tout slugger Bell as 'a big upgrade'

@jessicacamerato
December 26, 2020

Josh Bell had been at the top of the Nationals’ wish list of trade targets, and they got what they hoped for on Christmas Eve. The Nats addressed their vacancy at first base on Thursday by acquiring the switch-hitting Bell from the Pirates. In exchange, Washington sent right-handers Wil Crowe,

Josh Bell had been at the top of the Nationals’ wish list of trade targets, and they got what they hoped for on Christmas Eve.

The Nats addressed their vacancy at first base on Thursday by acquiring the switch-hitting Bell from the Pirates. In exchange, Washington sent right-handers Wil Crowe, who was ranked by MLB Pipeline as its No. 3 prospect, and Eddy Yean, who was its No. 6 prospect, to Pittsburgh.

“Josh was definitely the trade option that we were looking at most intently,” general manager Mike Rizzo said Saturday on an introductory Zoom call, adding, “We think this is a big upgrade for us, [the] middle-of-the-lineup presence that we have been looking for.”

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Bell, 28, is entering his sixth Major League season. Last year, he posted a .226/.305/.364 slash line with a .669 OPS and eight home runs in 57 games. He is looking to return to his form of 2019, when he was an All-Star and ranked in the top 10 among National League players in RBIs (116, sixth), OPS+ (142, seventh), doubles (37, eighth), homers (37, ninth), slugging (.569, ninth) and OPS (.936, 10th).

“Looking back at this past year, I think that things got long,” Bell said of his swing. “I feel like I was kind of jerking into my front side just a little more than I'd like to. … I just kind of was jumping toward the ball, and that doesn't play at this level. That doesn't play with guys with high velo.”

In his career, Bell has hit .261/.349/.466 with an .814 OPS. He has averaged .271 against righties compared with .232 against lefties. Rizzo said the Nationals believe Bell is a candidate for a bounce-back season, and the team is putting together a hitting program for him ahead of Spring Training.

“We feel that only enhances his value on a team and in a lineup,” Rizzo said of Bell’s switch-hitting abilities. “[It] makes the lineup longer, makes the bench even longer, and it gives the manager a lot more options to manage that game. When we looked at Josh, that was a big piece of what we were trying to do.”

There was a hole at first base following a season in which the position was manned by committee. Howie Kendrick announced his retirement on Monday, and Asdrúbal Cabrera and Eric Thames are free agents.

It remains to be seen how Washington will back up first base. Last season, Bell played 35 games at first for the Pirates, and his fielding percentage dipped to .984. He was the designated hitter in 21 games. Veteran Ryan Zimmerman, who was part of the Nats’ plan at first before he elected not to play in 2020, is an option.

“I think,” Rizzo said, “that 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.

“We certainly haven’t ruled out a Zim reunion, and that skill set still fits on our roster.”

Bell received a welcome from the Nationals on social media. Shortstop Trea Turner, whom Bell has known since rookie development camp, tweeted his excitement shortly after the trade was announced. Bell also is being reunited with former Pirates teammates Josh Harrison and Daniel Hudson. Bell, the Pirates’ 2020 Roberto Clemente Award nominee, is looking forward to getting to know his new club and community.

“I’m definitely excited to get a new taste of D.C.,” Bell said. “I have always loved going there. I’ve always loved the place as a whole, in regards to just how forward-thinking they are as a community and whatnot. I’m definitely stoked to be there.”

The Nationals parted ways with a pair of young arms in order to acquire the starting first baseman.

Crowe, a 2017 second-round Draft pick, earned the Carolina League Pitcher of the Year award in ’18, when he went 11-0 with a 2.69 ERA for Class A Advanced Potomac. Last season, the 26-year-old made his Major League debut and went 0-2 with an 11.88 ERA over three starts.

Yean, 19, signed with the Nationals in 2017 out of the Dominican Republic for $100,000. In two seasons at the Rookie and Class A Short Season levels, he is 3-5 with a 4.70 ERA in 21 games (20 starts).

“Our philosophy is we spend more emphasis on the player that we acquire than we give away,” Rizzo said. “We’re always a team that, we like to make good baseball trades. You’ve got to give to get. And you’re talking about an [All-Star] back in 2019 with two years of control, at least, for the organization. So you’re going to have to give up players for that. We’ve never been afraid to give up good players to get good players.

“We’re extremely happy with the acquisition of Josh. He fulfills a lot of the things we were looking to do in the offseason, and, again, I can’t overemphasize this is the type of person we want in Washington, D.C., in that clubhouse and between the lines.”

Jessica Camerato covers the Nationals for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessicacamerato, Facebook and Instagram.