As fellow Diamond Digest writer Joey Bohley wrote in the Nationals’ Offseason Outlook, the top priority for the Nats was to get a big bat to protect Trea Turner and Juan Soto at the top of the order. GM Mike Rizzo has done that by trading for 1B Josh Bell from the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Nats will send back two pitching prospects, RHPs Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean, the #3 and 6 prospects respectively in the organization.
For the rebuilding Pirates, this could be just the beginning of a series of major trades trying to restock the farm system. Since he took over in 2019, Pirates GM Ben Cherington has been loading up on young arms, and he doesn’t appear to be slowing down any time soon. Crowe and Yean are both MLB ready, according to MLB.com’s prospect rankings, though only Crowe has Major League experience so far, pitching in 3 games to an 0-2 record with an 11.88 ERA and 12.31 FIP. Crowe will probably be in the rotation before the end of this season, while Yean will likely get his chance at some point over the next couple of years.
In his first full season in 2017, Bell finished 3rd in Rookie of the Year voting, slashing .255/.334/.466 with 26 HR, 90 RBI, and a 108 wRC+. His best season to date was in 2019 though, in which he was an All-Star and hit .277/.367/.569 with 37 HR, 116 RBI, and a 135 wRC+, which was 10th in the National League. His Statcast numbers were also great in 2019, as he was in the 86th percentile or better in BB%, xBA, Barrel%, Hard Hit%, xwOBA, xSLG, and Exit Velocity. While he struggled in 2020, the Nationals will have to hope that was due to the small sample size and that he can return to his 2019 form next season.
One thing that stood out about his 2020 season was his whiff and strikeout percentages. From 2017-2020, he was around the league average in Whiff %, hovering at about 24%, but in 2020 that jumped to 33.6%. In 2020, Bell’s K% jumped above 20% and his BB% fell under 10%, each for the first time in his career. Playing with Soto could help those number, as Soto has been in the 98th percentile or better in BB% and above league average in K% each year of his career.
Bell will likely slot into the 3rd or 4th spot of the batting order for the Nats this season, depending where Manager Davey Martinez wants Turner and Soto at the top of the order. While this is a big move to help the offense, Rizzo will likely need another move or two to have this team in serious contention for a playoff spot.