Pittsburgh Pirates: Grading The Return In The Josh Bell Trade
Thursday afternoon the Pittsburgh Pirates traded first baseman Josh Bell to the Washington Nationals. How well did the Pirates do in their return?
The Pittsburgh Pirates made their first big trade of the winter. Although Adam Frazier, Steven Brault and Joe Musgrove’s names have been the most rumored to move, it was first baseman Josh Bell who was the first big player general manager Ben Cherington moved.
Bell was traded to the Washington Nationals for two right handed pitching prospects, that being Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean. So how did the Pittsburgh Pirates do in this trade?
The Pittsburgh Pirates gave up just Bell in this trade. Bell, as it’s been covered here plenty of times before, a very inconsistent batter. After showing decent power in his 2017 rookie campaign with 26 home runs and a .211 isolated slugging percentage. During the 2018 season Bell had a sub-.200 isolated slugging and hit just a dozen home runs. However, he did see his on-base percentage rise from .334 to .357. This was due to a rise in walk rate (10.6% to 13.2%) and drop in strikeout rate (18.9% to 17.8%).
In 2019, Bell seemed to put everything together, at least on paper. He hit .277/.367/.569 with 37 home runs and an outstanding .292 isolated slugging, while having a 135 wRC+ and .378 wOBA. The thing was, Bell was a different hitter every two months. Bell had a 178 wRC+ through April and May, a 94 wRC+ in June and July, but a 126 wRC+ in August and September.
Bell also had yet another bumpy year in 2020. He hit just .226/.305/.364 with a 78 wRC+ in 223 plate appearances. However, after only having a 41 wRC+ through his first 110 plate appearances, it rose to 115 throughout the second half of the season. Plus he seemed to heat up in his final 77 plate appearances, collecting 19 hits, four of which left the park, while having a solid 9/16 BB/K ratio.
Bell has consistently struggled defensively. Since taking over primary first base duties for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2017, Bell has -26 defensive runs saved, -9.1 UZR/150 and -6.2 range runs above average. Among qualified first basemen in this four season span, he’s the worst defender in terms of UZR, DRS and the third worst defender in range runs above average.
The headliner of the deal seems to be Eddy Yean. Yean was signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2017. After a rough first showing at the Dominican Summer League in 2018, Yean pitched well between Rookie Ball and Low-A ball the following year. Through 46.1 innings, Yean put up a solid 3.50 ERA, 3.44 FIP and 1.16 WHIP. While Yean didn’t have an outstanding strikeout rate (22.6%), or walk rate (8.9%), they were improvements from 2018.
Yean throws three pitches. These include a fastball, slider and change up. While he doesn’t have any elite-level pitches, FanGraphs grades none of them worse than a 55. Yean, who has a 40+ future grade on FanGraphs, projects as a solid, durable mid-rotation starter.
Currently, he ranks as the 7th best prospect in hte Pirate farm system via MLB Pipline. On FanGraphs, however, he would rank somewhere between their 13th and 20th best prospect given he has the same future value grade as prospects in that range.
The other prospect is Wil Crowe. Crowe was a second-round pick by the Nats in the 2017 draft. Although he never ranked as a top 100 prospect, the right hander did well throughout the lower minors posting a sub-3 ERA at both Low-A and High-A, despite unfavorable ERA estimators.
It’s been the upper minors where Crowe has been inconsistent. After a rough start to his Double-A career, Crowe pitched decently in 2019 with a 3.87 ERA, 3.15 FIP and 3.05 xFIP through 95.1 innings. When he was moved to Triple-A, Crowe struggled again, giving up 37 earned runs on 66 hits, seven of which were home runs, and walking 26 batters in 54 innings. Crowe does have some MLB experience, albeit only 8.1 innings.
Crowe throws five pitches, but isn’t a hard thrower. He only averages out in the low-90s on his fastball and can touch 96 MPH. He also throws a slider, curveball and change up. Crowe also has really decent spin on all of his pitches. His fastball averaged 2300 RPM while his curve averaged 2800 RPM. Crowe struggles in the upper minors aren’t very inspiring for his future. However, he could be a solid back of the rotation arm.
Bell’s inconsistency is what ended his run with Pittsburgh. While he looked like a future silver slugger winner sometimes, he’s also looked like a Double-A hitter tossed directly into the Major Leagues by surprise. His terrible glove has only led to a 2.6 bWAR and 3.5 fWAR in 2191 career plate appearances. He’s a career .261/.349/.466 hitter, which is good for a 114 wRC+, above average. However it’s not good enough to offset the poor defense. Plus, it’s not like he’s a 25 year old who’s had a slow start to his career. He’ll open 2021 at 28 and end the season at 29.
While I have stated that he could be a rebound candidate, as he does have the raw power and potential, there’s still just as good of a case to be made that 2021 will be yet another inconsistent year for the infielder.
Yean still has a projectable body. While he projects as a mid-rotation arm now, he’s still so young that he could become better. Crowe doesn’t have the same ceiling Yean does, but if he can at least be a back of the rotation innings eater type pitcher, it will be a plus.
On the other hand, it feels like the Pittsburgh Pirates sold a bit low on Bell. While his value wouldn’t have skyrocketed if he had a strong April and May, it would have risen from what it is now. Bell is under control for 2021 and 2022, so there shouldn’t have been an immediate rush to get him out the door.
Overall, though, I don’t believe the Pirates did bad. This could easily be a win for the Bucs. Even though the Nats do have a weak farm system, getting two top organizational prospects, including one in their top 10, for an inconsistent bat who’s best position is DH is a good return. They may have sold a bit low, but the overall value wasn’t going to drastically change given a good two months. My final grade for the Pirates is a B.