Pittsburgh Pirates: The Josh Bell Trade Was Underrated

CLEARWATER, FLORIDA - MARCH 05: Wil Crowe #29 of the Pittsburgh Pirates throws a pitch during the third inning against the Philadelphia Phillies during a spring training game at Phillies Spring Training Ball Park on March 05, 2021 in Clearwater, Florida. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)
CLEARWATER, FLORIDA - MARCH 05: Wil Crowe #29 of the Pittsburgh Pirates throws a pitch during the third inning against the Philadelphia Phillies during a spring training game at Phillies Spring Training Ball Park on March 05, 2021 in Clearwater, Florida. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images) /

Among the three big trades Ben Cherington made this offseason the Josh Bell trade with the Washington Nationals flew under the radar despite the solid return the Pittsburgh Pirates received

The Pittsburgh Pirates made three big treades this past offseason. One of them included 2019 All-Star Josh Bell going to the Washington Nationals, but the trade really flew under the radar despite the Bucs making out well in the trade. Despite General manager Ben Cherington getting good returns on Joe Musgrove and Jameson Taillon, in my opinion, the Bell trade was, overall, very underrated.

For one, the Pittsburgh Pirates surrendered a solid but inconsistent hitter with a very poor glove. Bell put up a .261/.349/.466 line with a .343 wOBA, 86 home runs and 113 wRC+ throughout his 2191 plate appearances with the Bucs. However, he was a very different hitter in each of his four seasons as their primary first baseman.

Bell showed good power potential in his first season in 2017 registering a .211 isolated slugging percentage, .466 slugging and cranking 26 home runs. Then the next season, he had just 11 home runs, a .150 ISO and slugging percentage of just .411. 2018 was his best season yet where he hit .277/.367/.569 with 37 long balls, a .378 wOBA and 135 wRC+.

However, even then, Bell was a different hitter every two months. In April and May, Bell put up MVP-caliber numbers including .343/.405/.704 line with a 178 wRC+. Then in June and July, he fell into a slump and hit .213/.318/.448 with a 93 wRC+. He ended on a high note hitting .258/.377/.504 with a 126 wRC+, but it was still very different from April-May and June-July.

It was much of the same story for Bell in 2020. The first half of the season saw him have a sub-50 wRC+ at 43 along with a .230 wOBA and OPS of just .515. Then, the second half saw him have a resurgence hitting .267/.367/.450 with a .342 wOBA and 114 wRC+. This included a .288/.377/.488 line in his final 77 plate appearances in the season.

While first base defense isn’t usually very noticeable Bell’s well below average glove at the corner infield position was not only noticeable, but cost the Pittsburgh Pirates many runs. Since arriving in the Major Leagues in 2016, Bell has -26 DRS. That’s by far the lowest DRS total with Miguel Cabrera at -20. UZR/150 painted Bell in an even worse light at -9.7. The next closest had a UZR/150 of more than half at -3.7, that being Astros’ infielder Yuli Gurriel. He was also third to last in range runs with a -6.6 mark.

All of this culminated with the switch hitter having an fWAR of just 3.4 and bWAR of 2.6. Bell posted a b/fWAR higher than 1.0 just a single time, that being his 2019 season. This was all through 552 games played and well over 2000 plate appearances. All told, he had the 7th lowest fWAR total from 2016-2020 among the 120 player with at least 2000 plate appearances. Not only was Bell an overall below average player, but he would have been 29 by the end of the 2021 season and had just two seasons of control left.

Now, obviously, Bell didn’t have net-zero value considering he still had the potential to absolutely mash as we saw in the first and last two months of the 2019 season, but through four full seasons in the bigs, he was inconsistent with the bat and was one of the worst defenders at first base and in general.

The headliner the Pittsburgh Pirates got back was Eddy Yean. Yean has yet to pitch a full professional season since making his debut in the Nationals’ system in 2018. During the 2019 season he only pitched 46.1 innings with their Rookie-Ball and Low-A teams, putting up a 3.50 ERA, 3.44 FIP and 1.16 WHIP. Overall, very solid numbers. He also has three pitches that are considered to have above average potential. His fastball is seen as a 60-grade offering in the future with both his slider and change-up having 55-future grades.

While Yean may not be projected as a #1, consensus ace in the league, he definitely could be a high-end #3 starter. He has three offerings that project as above average and control and command that is projected to be around average as well. He could build his stock up in 2021 given more playing time and the chance to pitch throughout an entire season.

The Pittsburgh Pirates also received another pitcher in the deal. That is Wil Crowe. Crowe has pitched well at Double-A in 2019 with a 3.87 ERA, 3.15 FIP and 1.12 WHIP in 95.1 innings of work. This also came with a strong 0.76 HR/9 and 4.05 K/BB ratio. Plus he had a strong 3.15 xFIP. However, he struggled at Triple-A where he had a 6.17 ERA, 5.46 FIP and 1.70 WHIP in 54 innings. At the Triple-A level, Crowe saw his strikeout rate and walk rate and home run rate all take turns in the wrong direction.

So far this spring Crowe has pitched well. In four Grapefruit League games Crowe has allowed just 1 earned run on seven hits and no home runs. He’s walked three batters and struck out seven in 9.2 innings of work.

Though he doesn’t have as high of a ceiling as Yean, Crowe is still seen as a solid pitching prospect. He uses a four pitch mix including a fastball, slider, curveball and change up. He averages around 2800 RPM on his curve and is right around average with his fastball at 2350 RPM. Crowe isn’t a hard thrower averaging out in the 91-94 MPH range, but has been throwing harder in preseason.

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Both Crowe and Yean are considered top 30 prospects by both FanGraphs and MLB Pipeline. While they got decent returns for their other trades, the Bell trade flies under the radar in terms of value received. Bell is a sub-5 WAR player through over 500 games played at the Major League level. In return for that, the Pittsburgh Pirates received a high-ceiling starter in Yean and another pitching prospect to go with him in Crowe.