After abysmal start, Bell proved to be hitter Nats expected


Age on opening day 2022: 29

How acquired: Traded from Pirates for RHP Wil Crowe and RHP Eddy Yean, December 2020

MLB service time: 5 years, 53 days

2021 salary: $6.35 million

Contract status: Arbitration-eligible in 2022, free agent in 2023

2021 stats: 144 G, 568 PA, 498 AB, 75 R, 130 H, 24 2B, 1 3B, 27 HR, 88 RBI, 0 SB, 0 CS, 65 BB, 101 SO, .261 AVG, .347 OBP, .476 SLG, .823 OPS, 124 OPS+, minus-1 DRS (at 1B), 2 DRS (at LF), 1.4 fWAR, 3.1 bWAR

Quotable: “This is a guy that 28, 29 years old had a career 800-plus OPS, and that was the player that we traded for and that’s the player we got. Beyond that, his impact in the clubhouse is irreplaceable. He’s been terrific in the clubhouse. He’s been a mentor to young players. He’s a shining example of what a big leaguer should look like.” - general manager Mike Rizzo

Thumbnail image for Bell-HR-Swing-Red-Sidebar.jpg2021 analysis: The Nationals made Josh Bell their premier offseason acquisition, counting on the big first baseman to bat behind Juan Soto in their lineup and put up the kind of numbers he did as an All-Star for the Pirates in 2019, not his disappointing 2020 season. And after a torrid spring in Florida, he looked poised to do just that.

Then came the first of countless calamities that would befall the Nats during this snakebit season: Bell was one of four players who tested positive for COVID-19 following the trip north and had to open the season on the injured list. And though he was back within a week, whatever positive momentum he generated in spring training vanished.

Through his first 23 games, Bell sported a horrifying .133/.198/.289 slash line, proving to be one of the least productive hitters in baseball at the time. Finally, though, it began to click. He homered May 13 against the Phillies, drove in three more runs the next night in Arizona and never looked back. Over his final 121 games, Bell hit .287/.375/.513, producing an .889 OPS that ranked 24th among all major leaguers during that lengthy span. And as a result, he finished with season totals almost identical to his career averages.

What made Bell successful? He reduced his strikeout rate to a career-best 17.8 percent. And he started using the big part of the field, with a career-high 59 percent of his batted balls going to center field while a career-low 25.5 percent were hit to the pull side. He also made major strides in the field, charged with only five errors (he had 13 in 2019) while finishing with his best Defensive Runs Saved rating over a full season.

2022 outlook: Based on the glowing praise bestowed upon him by Rizzo and manager Davey Martinez, Bell certainly looks like he’s going to remain a key part of the Nationals lineup next season. He’s eligible for arbitration one more time before he can become a free agent, and his salary is likely to approach $10 million in 2022.

That said, if the Nats don’t feel like Bell fits into their plans beyond next season, it wouldn’t be completely ludicrous to find out how much they could get for him in a trade this winter. His value may never be higher. That doesn’t seem to be their intentions, and even if they end up in last place again next season they could always seek to trade him to a contender in July.

The real question is if the Nationals believe Bell could be a long-term answer for them at first base. (Or possibly designated hitter, if the National League adopts it.) If so, they may not want to wait until a year from now to make their move, with the lure of free agency and the ability to negotiate with 30 teams awfully tempting.

Either way, Bell’s challenge in 2022 will be to make himself a consistent offensive player for 162 games and avoid the lengthy slump that put him behind the eight-ball in April and early May. A full season of a productive version of himself could lead to some awfully big numbers, and a true force behind Soto in the Nats lineup.

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