PITTSBURGH -- A year ago, Josh Bell had seemingly emerged as someone the Pirates could build their team around, a switch-hitting slugger and a popular enough player to be considered the new face of the franchise. When the Pirates traded their former All-Star first baseman to the Nationals on Thursday,
PITTSBURGH -- A year ago, Josh Bell had seemingly emerged as someone the Pirates could build their team around, a switch-hitting slugger and a popular enough player to be considered the new face of the franchise. When the Pirates traded their former All-Star first baseman to the Nationals on Thursday, it was as clear a sign as any that their focus is still on building for the future.
In a Christmas Eve swap, Pittsburgh sent Bell to Washington and received pitching prospects Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean in return. Bell will fill the Nats’ need at first base, while Crowe could pitch in Pittsburgh next year and the 19-year-old Yean will join a group of high-upside arms in the Pirates’ Minor League system.
Pittsburgh has declined to use any form of the word “rebuild” when describing what it's doing under general manager Ben Cherington, even after trading center fielder Starling Marte on Jan. 27 and finishing this past season with a 19-41 record. But Cherington’s comments on Thursday afternoon reinforced what the decision to trade Bell for prospects said loud and clear.
“In order to build that winning team that our fans deserve, it’s going to require making some decisions like this along the way to give ourselves a chance to build enough talent to do that,” Cherington said via Zoom. “This is one of them.”
The 28-year-old Bell was a National League Rookie of the Year Award finalist in 2017 when he hit 26 homers and drove in 90 runs, and an NL All-Star during his 37-homer, 116-RBI campaign in ’19. But he took a big step back offensively this past season, slashing just .226/.305/.364 with eight homers and 59 strikeouts in 57 games, and continued to be a liability at first base despite his tireless pregame work in the field. Bell split time at first and DH with Colin Moran, who now figures to be the Bucs’ everyday first baseman moving forward.
Bell has two years of club control remaining, so the Pirates could have waited until the Trade Deadline or next offseason before trading him, kept him for two more years or even tried to extend his contract. But Cherington said the front office considered every option and compared those possibilities to the value available in the offer made by the Nationals. After talking with the Nats off and on over the last few weeks, Cherington said, they made a move that ultimately felt like “the right decision for the Pirates.”
Cherington said he has spent his first year on the job in Pittsburgh evaluating the club’s talent base in the Majors and Minors to determine how far away the Pirates are from fielding a winning team. The team hasn’t offered an idea of when that day might come, but the front office clearly believes it needs to accumulate more talent in the system to get to that point.
“That’s our sole focus: to win. But with that clarity, I think, has come the knowledge that in order to fill the talent base that's big enough, deep enough, dynamic enough to win, we just need to add more,” Cherington said. “So when we have guys that might be at a point in their career where we have less time with them, potentially, and there's an opportunity to add more talent that we have a longer time with, those are the kinds of things that we're going to have to be willing to do, even when it involves someone like Josh, who we really respect.”
And the Pirates could finalize more trades like this before the start of next season. Joe Musgrove and Adam Frazier are their most likely trade candidates, and according to sources, multiple teams are inquiring about the availability of starter Jameson Taillon. The decision to move Bell reinforces the notion that just about everyone, aside from young building blocks like Ke’Bryan Hayes and Mitch Keller, is available.
“It was just very clear to us that this was a decision we had to make and, although difficult, as much as we appreciate Josh and respect Josh, our focus, more than that, is on the Pirates and building a winning team, a team that our fans can be proud of over a long period of time,” Cherington said via Zoom. “In order to do that, in order to build that winning team and get to that winning team, it's going to require some difficult decisions at times. This is one of those. We're excited about the pitchers we got in this deal. We think both Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean have a chance to be starting pitchers in the Major Leagues and help us be a part of what we're building in Pittsburgh."
Crowe, 26, could join the Pirates’ rotation at some point next season after struggling in three starts for the Nationals this year. The right-hander, who is now Pittsburgh’s No. 17 prospect according to MLB Pipeline, is a former second-round Draft pick who was named Carolina League Pitcher of the Year in 2018 after going 11-0 with a 2.69 ERA for Class A Advanced Potomac. Cherington said the Pirates believe Crowe has “the pitches and the know-how and the physical characteristics and the history” to be a starting pitcher in the Majors, and he’ll get a chance to show that in Spring Training.
"He's a pretty polished kid," said one pro scout who saw Crowe pitch for Triple-A Fresno in 2019. "He needs to clean up some things in his delivery but flashes average command and could be plus. Four average pitches are in there, with the changeup and slider having some upside as swing-and-miss pitches. He's an average athlete on the hill with a mature body who competes well. He has mid-rotation upside."
Yean appears to be the higher-upside prospect as he joins the Pirates’ system as their No. 7 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, one spot ahead of Brennan Malone -- part of Pittsburgh’s return for Marte and another one of the intriguing pitchers now populating the lower levels of the Minors.
Yean signed with the Nationals out of the Dominican Republic for $100,000. He rose up the prospect ranks as an 18-year-old in 2019, when he struck out 43 hitters in 46 1/3 innings and finished with a 3.50 ERA while being promoted from Rookie ball to Class A Advanced Auburn. His fastball can touch 97 mph with a lot of life to it, and he also offers a quality slider and a developing changeup.
“He’s a strong, physical kid who we think has a chance to be durable. All the reports we did in terms of the background work were really positive, so looking forward to getting to know him,” Cherington said. “No matter how well we do in pitching development, there’s going to be some attrition over time. We know that. To build a pitching staff that’s good enough and deep enough to win in Pittsburgh, we don’t need 15 or 20 guys. We need 30 or 40, because they don’t all work out as well as we want them to, and there’s other stuff that happens. So that’s part of it, too.”
Adam Berry covers the Rays for MLB.com and covered the Pirates from 2015-21. Follow him on Twitter @adamdberry.