The Nationals acquired former All-Star slugger Josh Bell in a Christmas Eve trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates, filling their hole at first base while providing their lineup with a much-needed power bat capable of hitting from both sides of the plate.
“We think this is a big upgrade for us and [the] middle-of-the-lineup presence that we’ve been looking for,” Nationals GM Mike Rizzo said in a Zoom press conference Saturday. “We never stop trying to improve the club. We certainly won’t this offseason, but this fulfills a big part of our wish list in getting this middle-of-the-lineup bat.”
Washington struggled to produce on offense in 2020 outside of MVP candidates Juan Soto and Trea Turner. The front office noticed. Rizzo told reporters earlier in December that his top priority was to find an impact hitter for the middle of the Nationals’ lineup. Bell certainly qualifies, as his 2019 season saw him post a .936 OPS with 37 homers. The only player in Nationals history with numbers that high in a single season is Bryce Harper, who did it when he won NL MVP in 2015.
Now that the Nationals have Bell in tow, the focus shifts to where he fits in the lineup. It’s impossible to say exactly where that will be given Rizzo likely has a few moves left in him before the team’s roster is ready for the 2021 season. But the Nationals’ GM made it clear he expects Bell to be right in the heart of the order once manager Davey Martinez puts the pieces together.
“When we looked at Josh, [his switch-hitting ability] was a big piece of what we were trying to do,” Rizzo said. “He fits in that middle of the lineup somewhere — again, that’s a Davey conversation — but he fits in the middle of that lineup somewhere for us and being a switch hitter only adds to his value as far as keeping the lineup long, making it more manageable for the field manager and a guy that we have high expectations for.”
However, that All-Star campaign in 2019 was largely fueled by a monster May, when Bell hit .390 with 46 hits and 12 home runs over 29 games. After June 1, he hit only .232 with 19 home runs in 87 games the rest of the way. Those struggles continued into 2020 as the lack of both a full spring training and in-game access to video footage took a toll.
“Looking back at this past year, I think that things got long,” Bell said. “I feel like I was drifting to my front side a little more than I’d like to. I guess the expression is, ‘If you’re gonna watch movie, would you rather watch it from the back seat of the movie theater or the front seat?’ Obviously, you’d wanna watch it from the back seat. So I was just kind of jumping towards the ball and that doesn’t play at this level. It doesn’t play with guys with high velo.
“Without video and things like that — to really be able to dive in at-bat to at-bat — I wasn’t really making the adjustments in-game that I’d like to. Things kinda just sped up on me a little bit…30 games into the season I was hitting .180, something I’ve never done. But across the league you saw different guys doing the same thing so struggles across the board.”
Expectations must be tapered until Bell starts to show signs of improvement. More than anything else this offseason, the Nationals need protection for Soto in the lineup. The 22-year-old’s incredible plate discipline will put him among the league leaders in walks, especially if there’s no one behind him that strikes fear in opposing pitchers. Bell is capable of being that player, but he’s better suited to hit another spot down in the order if the Nationals acquire a more consistent hitter.
That’s not to say Washington won’t try to help Bell return to form. According to Rizzo, hitting coach Kevin Long has been pouring over Bell’s video ever since Rizzo tipped him off that the Nationals were eyeing him. The player nicknamed in the minors “Tinker Bell” for how often he changes his swing should be a great pupil for launch-angle savant Long.
A best-case scenario would see the Nationals eventually put Bell right behind Soto and let the two of them pull out the tape measure to see who can fit longer home runs on a nightly basis. But on the flip side, Bell could show that his strikeout issues are no fluke and his cold streaks come around more often than his hot ones.
The Nationals may have found their next All-Star slugger. They may not have, either. It will come down to who else the team acquires and how comfortable the coaching staff is with Bell’s progress in spring training to determine where he’ll be in the lineup by Opening Day.