Looking back at the Josh Bell trade

Two years ago today, the Nationals made a surprise acquisition that created a busier Christmas Eve than we were expecting in the D.C. area. General manager Mike Rizzo was able to send two minor league pitchers to the Pirates for All-Star first baseman Josh Bell.

While the timing was surprising, the acquisition itself was not. The Nationals had made the first baseman a potential trade target for a while, with the expectation at the time being he would get a majority of the starts at first while Ryan Zimmerman would be the backup if he returned for his 17th campaign after sitting out the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.

Rizzo won praise for the early Christmas present to Nats fans in acquiring a power bat to provide protection for Juan Soto and Trea Turner in the lineup with two years left of team control and without giving up any top prospects. At the time, the Nats’ most coveted prospects were Cade Cavalli, Jackson Rutledge, Carter Kieboom and Yasel Antuna.

Only Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean were required to bring Bell to Washington. At the time, Crowe was 26 years old and the Nats’ No. 4 prospect, per MLB Pipeline, and Yean was 19 and the club’s No. 6 prospect.

Crowe had made his major league debut that summer, posting an 11.88 ERA and 2.640 WHIP in 8 ⅓ innings over his three starts. A second-round pick in 2017 out of South Carolina, the right-hander was expected to compete as a rotation depth piece the following spring.

Yean was the younger prospect with higher upside. Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2017, he pitched to a 3.50 ERA and 1.165 WHIP in his first professional season in the Nationals system in 2019.

It seemed a small price to pay for two seasons of Bell.

But the switch-hitter’s Nationals career got off to an unfortunate start. After the Nationals also added slugger Kyle Schwarber to the lineup and veteran southpaw Jon Lester to the rotation, Bell had a strong finish to spring training. But the start of his season was delayed when he and a number of Nationals landed on the COVID-19 list prior to Opening Day.

He finally made his Nats debut on April 12, but struggled out of the gate. Over his first 32 games, Bell slashed .193/.256/.377 with a .633 OPS, five homers, 17 RBIs and 35 strikeouts to just nine walks.

He eventually found his footing and the team hit its stride in June, thanks to a historic tear by Schwarber. But injuries and a bad July eventually led to the Nats becoming sellers at the deadline, headlined by trading Max Scherzer and Turner to the Dodgers for four prospects.

Bell remained in Washington, however, and finished the season strong. Over his last 112 games, he hit .281 with an .878 OPS, 22 home runs and 71 RBIs. That was the Bell who Rizzo thought he acquired on Christmas Eve.

The expectations for the Nationals were low heading into this year. But once again, Bell, along with Soto and free agent signee Nelson Cruz, was supposed to supply the pop. A pending free agent at the end of the season, there was debate on whether the Nats should extend Bell to make him their first baseman of the future or use him as a trade chip to net them some new prospects at the deadline.

Without any COVID issues to slow him down, Bell had the strong start to the season he was poised to have the year prior. Over 103 games with the Nationals, he slashed .301/.384/.493 with an .877 OPS, 14 home runs and a team-high 57 RBIs.

His numbers suggested he should have been named an All-Star for the second time in his career, after being named as a reserve in 2019 with the Pirates. But the National League’s depth at first base and the fact that every team needs at least one representative meant Bell was left off the roster.

Nevertheless, Bell had a very productive year with the Nationals in 2022. So much so that he was included in perhaps the biggest trade in major league history at the deadline.

Rumors had begun swirling in July that the Nationals were open to trading Soto, an unprecedented move of someone his caliber and potential with multiple years left of team control. But if Rizzo was going to do it, he was going to make sure he got the best – and biggest – return possible.

That’s where Bell’s inclusion came into play. Rizzo wanted the Padres’ top five prospects: MacKenzie Gore, CJ Abrams, Robert Hassell III, James Wood and Jarlin Susana. But to get all five, the Padres needed more than just Soto.

So Bell was included in the deal. But with his starting first baseman departing, Rizzo needed a major leaguer coming back to Washington. At first it was going to be Eric Hosmer. But the veteran utilized his ability to block the trade and was eventually shipped to Boston. So Luke Voit, who didn’t have enough service time to block a trade, was included with the five prospects instead.

By including Bell in the deal, the Nationals were able to jump-start their rebuild with five top prospects and a replacement first baseman, though they non-tendered Voit last month. Gore is expected to be a part of the starting rotation and Abrams will be the starting shortstop. Hassell and Wood are maybe only a couple of seasons away from the majors. And Susana, though the youngest and least experienced, may have the highest upside of them all.

As for Crowe and Yean, the two prospects the Nats gave up to acquire Bell in the first place? Crowe, now 28, is 10-18 with a 5.04 ERA, 1.500 WHIP and four saves in 86 games (26 starts) over the last two seasons with the Pirates. And Yean, now 21, is 8-6 with a 5.93 ERA, 1.550 WHIP and four saves over 64 games (eight starts) the last two seasons between Single-A and High-A in the Pirates system.

Bell struggled with the Padres to finish the year, hitting just .192 with three homers in 53 regular season games and batting .250 with two homers in 10 playoff games. But his final numbers over 247 games with the Nationals were solid: .278/.363/.483 with an .846 OPS, 41 home runs and 145 RBIs.

Off the field, he left an even bigger impact in the community. He started and hosted the Josh Bell Book Club that was an instant hit with fans. He engaged with thousands of fans on a monthly basis through books he chose as inspiration for being and becoming better people.

Bell also became the official player ambassador to the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy when he joined the organization. He helped and encouraged the growth of countless scholar athletes, both on the field and in the classroom, during his work with the Academy.

His impact on the D.C. community led him to be the Nationals’ nominee this year for the prestigious Roberto Clemente Award, even after the trade to the Padres.

All things considered, it seems like the trade to acquire Bell turned out well for the Nationals. Although it’s too early to make a judgment on the prospects the Nats got in return for him and Soto, he did help them secure one of the biggest trade hauls in the sport’s history.

Bell signed a two-year, $33 million contract with the Guardians last week. The deal includes a player opt-out after the first year, so he could hit the free agent market again this time next year.

Never say never on a possible reunion, but if Bell’s time in D.C. is indeed over for good, he undoubtedly left a meaningful impact on the franchise and city in his short time as a National.

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