Nats get big bat for Christmas, acquire Josh Bell from Bucs

General manager Mike Rizzo found a much-desired big bat to stuff into the Nationals’ stocking just hours before the sun sets on Christmas Eve: Josh Bell.

The Nats have acquired Bell, an All-Star first baseman in 2019, from the Pirates in exchange for pitching prospects Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean in a rare (but not unprecedented) Dec. 24 move announced by the club this afternoon.

The switch-hitting Bell, 28, clubbed 37 homers and drove in 116 runs while posting a .936 OPS and earning his first career All-Star selection in 2019. He struggled through a down year in 2020, batting just .226 with eight homers and a .669 OPS in 57 games, but the Nationals are banking on a return to form once he arrives in D.C. in the spring.

“We are thrilled to be adding a player of Josh Bell’s caliber to our team,” Rizzo said in a statement released by the club. “He adds a switch-hitting power bat to our lineup. And we know Josh will be an outstanding addition to our clubhouse and our community.”

Bell-Swings-Pirates-Sidebar.jpgThe owner of a .261/.349/.466 offensive slash line across parts of five big league seasons, Bell will be under the Nats’ control through the 2022 season, after which he can become a free agent. The Scott Boras client will earn a raise from his $4.8 million salary this year via arbitration, but shouldn’t be excessively expensive for a club that still needs to address several other roster holes this winter.

Though he’s not known for his glove - over his career, he has minus-32 Defensive Runs Saved and has never finished a season in positive territory - Bell does give the Nationals the big bat they’ve been seeking to supplement Trea Turner and Juan Soto in the heart of their lineup.

Better from the left side of the plate (.845 OPS) than the right side (.725 OPS), Bell figures to get the bulk of the Nationals’ at-bats at first base in 2021. But his acquisition doesn’t preclude the return of Ryan Zimmerman, who could wind up making some starts versus lefties and serving as a defensive replacement for Bell if he agrees to come back for his 17th season with the organization for something in the range of the $2 million salary he was set to make this year before opting out.

Bell has long loomed as a potential trade target for the Nationals. The question was how much the Pirates would ask in return for him. In the end, Rizzo pulled off the deal without giving up his most coveted prospects (Cade Cavalli, Jackson Rutledge, Carter Kieboom, Yasel Antuna).

Crowe made his major league debut this summer, racking up an 11.88 ERA in three starts (all of them as part of doubleheaders). The 26-year-old, a second-round pick in 2017, had a decent debut against the Marlins, then was roughed up by the Braves and again in a September rematch with Miami. He likely would’ve entered 2021 as the No. 7 or No. 8 starter on the Nationals’ rotation depth chart.

Yean, 19, appears to have higher upside than Crowe, but remains a long-term project. Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2017, he made his American minor league debut in 2019, with a 3.50 ERA and 1.165 WHIP in 10 combined starts with the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League Nationals and short-season Single-A Auburn.

This isn’t the first time Rizzo has acquired a big bat on Christmas Eve. He agreed to terms with Daniel Murphy on a three-year deal on Dec. 24, 2015, then watched the second baseman become an integral part of a Nationals club that won back-to-back division titles.

Bell’s acquisition does a lot to help the Nats, but they still need a corner outfielder, a catcher to at least share the job with Yan Gomes, potentially a third baseman if the team isn’t sold on Kieboom, a No. 4 starter and at least one left-handed reliever.

For now, the Nationals will sleep better tonight, having already received their biggest Christmas present before the sun went down.

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