Josh Bell went 2-for-4 on the final day of the regular season, pushing his batting average up to .261 for the year. It was the highest his average had been on any given day since going 1-for-3 in his Nationals debut, all the way back on April 12.
The 2021 season was a slow climb for the 28-year-old, who buried himself into an early hole he had to dig himself out of the rest of the year. Bell bottomed out with a .133 average and .487 OPS on May 12. From there, he hit .287 with an .889 OPS. The only first basemen to best him in both statistics over that span: Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Freddie Freeman and Paul Goldschmidt.
“It’s not easy,” Nationals manager Davey Martinez said in a press conference Sept. 20 of Bell’s turnaround. “The numbers are there. You try not to focus on them and I try to engage with him, especially earlier, about, ‘Hey, don’t worry about where you’re at now. Let’s worry about where you finish and I believe that you’re gonna finish very strong.’
“He actually started playing and not really focusing on the numbers.”
Bell ultimately became a dependable source of lineup protection for Juan Soto, posting fairly even splits as a switch hitter and providing power in the middle of the order. He was a pleasant surprise at first base too, grading out at about league average defensively after struggling at the position earlier in his career. The Nationals even tried him out in the outfield.
So one year after they acquired him in a trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates, the deal has proven to be another star on the resume of President and GM Mike Rizzo. But with the club embarking on a rebuild that was kickstarted by eight veterans being shipped off at the trade deadline, where does Bell fit in the Nationals’ future?
MLB Trade Rumors projects Bell to make $10 million in arbitration next season, the final year on his contract. He’s locked in as their starting first baseman for 2022, unless the Nationals decide to trade him and lean further into their rebuild. However, Rizzo has expressed a desire to return to contention sooner rather than later and trading Bell wouldn’t help that cause.
A more prudent option would be to consider extending Bell to a long-term deal. Coming off one of the better seasons of his career, Bell could be incentivized into capitalizing on his value and securing some stability for his future. The Nationals’ motivation for working out an extension would be twofold: locking him up now prevents other teams from bidding up the price in free agency and it gives Soto some assurance Bell will be there to hit behind him moving forward.
That is, assuming the Nationals’ top priority is to keep Soto in D.C. for the rest of his career. It may be a hard sell for Washington’s ownership to convince Soto and his agent Scott Boras from waiting out the remaining three years of his contract given the state of the organization. Yet by extending Bell, the Nationals could show they’re serious about competing in the near future.
Bell has already spent most of his career playing for a perpetually rebuilding team in the Pirates, so he might not be overenthusiastic to stick around either. But it would be in the Nationals’ best interest to initiate some extension talks and see what it might take to convince him to stay a while longer.