Josh Bell’s future with the Pittsburgh Pirates could prove to hinge on what happens with the National League and the potential universal designated hitter.
In recent seasons, Josh Bell has been a bit of a conundrum for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Bell debuted in 2016 and posted a healthy .368 on-base percentage while walking 13.8% of the time. Then in 2017, his power exploded to the tune of a .211 isolated power (ISO) and 27 home runs, however, his OBP slipped to .334.
After Bell struggled in 2018, he appeared to be breaking out in 2019. Bell mashed 37 home runs, to go with 37 doubles, a 135 wRC+, .292 ISO, and a .277/.367/.569 slash line. This included a 92.4 MPH exit velocity and 47.2% hard hit rate, both of which ranked among the league leaders.
2020 saw Bell take a step back in his results. His slash line slumped to .226/.305/.364 and his wRC+ fell to 74. However, he continued to hit the ball hard. His 91.7 MPH exit velocity was in the 87th percentile of baseball and his hard hit rate of 42.9% ranked in the 69th percentile of basbeall.
Despite hitting the ball hard, the results were not there for Bell in 2020. That said, with the way he was hitting the ball, odds are, had 2020 been a regular 162-game season Bell likely would have pulled out of his slump and had strong stats by the end of the season.
The problem with Bell is his defense. Bell has never been a good defensive first baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and there are no signs of things turning around. He posted a -1 Defensive Runs Saved and -5 Outs Above Average in just 285.1 innings of work at first base in 2020. In his career, Bell owns a -32 DRS and a -4 OAA at first base. Simply put, Bell is a disaster at first base and can not play there.
So, this brings up the question, what is Bell’s future with the Pittsburgh Pirates? Well, that may hing on if the National League keeps the designated hitter in 2021 or not.
Bell is set to become a free agent following the 2022 season. Due to this, Bell is likely to be traded at some point in the next calendar year. However, if the NL does not keep the DH for 2021 the Pittsburgh Pirates may be best suited trading Bell this offseason.
While it is believed that the NL will keep the DH for 2021, it is not a guarantee. If the DH does go to the wayside, then it makes sense for the Pittsburgh Pirates to move Bell and play Colin Moran at first base. After all, Moran is the better defender of the two, is emerging as a legitimate every day bat, and he is controlled longer than Bell.
If the DH does return to the NL in 2021, then keeping Bell becomes a more likely move. Keeping Bell and making him the team’s DH for 2021 would improve the Pirate line up. It would also give Bell the opportunity to improve his trade value before the Pittsburgh Pirates look to move him.
Ultimately, rather or not Bell is with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2021 may hinge on if the NL has the DH or not.