Nationals believe Bell is “a big upgrade for us”

In searching for the big bat his club was missing this season and he had openly identified as his No. 1 goal of this offseason, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo had no shortage of options to consider.

He could’ve gone big in the free agent market and tried to sign one of the pre-eminent (but pricey) players available. He could’ve gone after a second-tier (and thus less expensive) free agent and hoped that would be enough. Or he could’ve explored trade possibilities, recognizing that type of transaction might cost less in dollars but would require the loss of prospects.

In the end, the move that made the most sense to Rizzo was a trade for Josh Bell: a power-hitting first baseman who put up huge numbers for the Pirates in 2019, is under club control for two seasons at a modest price and could be had for two pitching prospects (Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean) who weren’t on the organization’s “no-touch” list.

There could yet be more additions to bolster the Nationals batting order, but Rizzo seemed to make it clear today Bell is the most important hitter he intends to acquire this winter.

“We think this is a big upgrade for us, a middle-of-the-lineup presence that we’ve been looking for,” Rizzo said during a Zoom session with reporters. “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.”

Bell-Swings-Pirates-Long-Sidebar.jpgBell, who clubbed 37 homers and drove in 116 runs during his All-Star campaign in 2019 before struggling this year, insists he’s ready for the challenge of batting in the heart of a lineup on a team that is attempting to return to the postseason two years after winning its first World Series.

“It’s definitely exciting times,” the 28-year-old said from his parents’ home in Irving, Texas. “It’s everybody’s dream to go into spring training and have that expectation to be in the postseason, to hunt for that championship again. For me, it’s something that I embrace with open arms. ... It’s an All-Star team. It’s a team filled with extreme talents, a team filled with champions. Just to be around those guys in the clubhouse, I’m really excited for it.”

Bell has no real prior experience with such things. He made his major league debut in 2016, just after the Pirates completed their surprising three-year postseason run. He hasn’t played for a team that won more than 82 games, and he finished in fourth or fifth place in the National League Central each of the last four seasons.

The Nationals, of course, are coming off a disappointing 24-36 season that bore no resemblance to their World Series run in 2019. In many ways, their hopes of returning to October baseball could hinge on Bell’s ability to return to his 2019 form.

The slugger’s 2020 numbers weren’t pretty. In 57 games, Bell hit .226 with eight homers, 22 RBIs and a .669 OPS. His batting average sat as low as .194 in early September, and though a slight uptick late salvaged things a bit, his overall production wasn’t close to meeting his expectations.

What happened? Bell attributed his struggles to a combination of factors. First of all, the shortened “summer training” everyone had following the long COVID-19 shutdown forced him to enter the season before he felt ready at the plate. Second, he had a tough time trying to correct some poor swing mechanics on the fly, in part because there was less access to clubhouse video than in the past due to Major League Baseball protocols during this unprecedented season.

“I think that things got long,” Bell said, describing his 2020 swing. “I feel like I was kind of jerking into my front side just a little more than I’d like to. The expression is: ‘If you’re going to watch a movie, would you rather watch it from the back seat of the movie theater or the front seat?’ Obviously, you would want to watch it from the back seat. So I was just kind of jumping toward the ball. And that doesn’t play at this level. That doesn’t play with guys with high (velocity).

“And without video and things like that to really be able to dive in at-bat to at-bat, I wasn’t able to make the adjustments in-game that I’d like to.”

The Nationals are devising a plan for Bell to work with hitting coach Kevin Long. And based on what they saw while scouting him, they believe a return to 2019 form is forthcoming.

“Analytically, they love him,” Rizzo said. “They love Josh. They loved his performance before. They think he’s a big bounceback candidate to get back towards those ‘19 numbers.”

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