While the Pittsburgh Pirates might look to shop first baseman Josh Bell sooner rather than later, holding off until next off-season might maximize their return.
Josh Bell had a great offensive season for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2019. He slashed .277/.367/.569 with 37 home runs, and a 135 wRC+. In comparison, Freddie Freeman posted a 138 wRC+, and Max Muncy put up a 134 wRC+.
Josh was in the top rankings of hard hit rate as well. According to Baseball Savant, Bell was in the 90th+ percentile in hard hit rate, exit velocity, and xSlugging. He also ranked 30th in lowest soft contact rate. Every season, Bell has improved some way since his 2017 rookie campaign. While he was one of the worst first baseman defensively, his offense definitely makes up for it.
While I do see him regressing in 2020, I don’t think he’ll regress by much. I could see him hitting somewhere in the .270/.370/.500 with 30 home runs range next year. That’s also about what FanGraphs’ Steamer projections see him hitting (.272/.369/.503, 29 long balls). But with his contract expiring after the 2022 season, the Bucs could be putting the switch hitting first baseman on the trading block sooner rather than later. However I feel they should hold off on trading Bell this off-season unless a team is willing to overpay for him.
First off, Bell was a bit inconsistent during 2019. He batted .343/.405/.704 with 18 home runs through the first two months of the season. But then he fell to a .213/.318/.448 line from June to July. However August onward saw him hit somewhere in the middle of the two extremes, having a .258/.377/.516 line. Bell needs to show more consistency, and prove that he is the player we watched in April, May, August, and September, rather than the one we saw during June and July.
The other, and biggest reason the Pirates should wait on Bell is the current market. For the past few seasons, the free agent market has been flooded by 1B/DH only types. That won’t be the case for the 2020-2021 off-season. The following are the only guaranteed 1B/DH free agents:
The list isn’t that long, and C.J. Cron is the only under 35 option available. It is very similar to the current reason why now is the time to trade Starling Marte as the center field market is bare bones. Plus, aside from Cruz, who will turn 40 in 2021 and could even possibly retire at the end of 2020, nobody out of this group has consistently put up amazing numbers year after year. Although Gurriel and Kendrick had great 2019 seasons, both will be 37 in 2021, and neither have put up the kind of numbers they did last season in their careers.
Bell will have many things going for him after 2020. He has a high probability of producing very good numbers in 2020, and has age on his side. He will only be 29 in 2021 and if the Pirates trade him during the 2020-2021 off-season, he will have two full years of control left. Maximizing prospect return should be what the Pirates are looking for. By then, many teams who are looking to re-enter competition should be looking into acquiring a top-level performer with the bat who isn’t too expensive, and has a few years of control left.