Pittsburgh Pirates: Josh Bell Reunion Could Make Sense


The Pittsburgh Pirates and former top prospect and 2019 All-Star Josh Bell could reunite this upcoming off-season if he continues to struggle.

This past offseason the Pittsburgh Pirates traded Josh Bell to the Washington Nationals for two pitching prospects. Those two being right-handers Eddy Yean and Wil Crowe. Crowe has shown some promise at the Major League level but has yet to show the ability to make it deeper into ball games. Yean on the other hand has shown some decent stuff but has struggled to shake off the rust from missing the 2020 season.

However, I’m not here to talk about Yean or Crowe today. I want to take a look at Bell. More specifically, I want to propose the idea that the Pittsburgh Pirates and Bell could reunite this offseason as Bell’s heavy struggles could potentially lead him to a non-tender by the Nats.

Bell has hit just .207/.270/.393 with 7 home runs so far in 159 trips to the plate. He’s put up just a .289 wOBA, and 80 wRC+. Bell simply just hasn’t had it so far this year. Among the 183 players with at least 150 plate appearances, Bell ranks 154th in wRC+, 149th in wOBA, 145th in OPS and 153rd in fWAR with an fWAR of 0.1. Among his 29 qualified peers at his position, he’s 25th in wRC+, 26th in wOBA, 24th in OPS and fWAR.

Though, he is still displaying that raw power he’s been known for. He’s still in the top 97th percentile of exit velocity, top 98th percentile of hard-hit rate, and has a solid .186 isolated slugging percentage. He also has a .328 xwOBA, which is notably higher than his actual wOBA. He also has a .242 xBA and .436 xSLG. However, his xSLG is the only expected stat above the 50th percentile.

Bell was also known for his strong plate discipline, something that has yet to show up this year either. He’s only walked at a 7.5% rate, while also striking out over a quarter of the time, 25.2% to be exact.

Weirdly enough, Bell has been a decent defender for the Nationals. He has +1 DRS, a 10.9 UZR/150, 0.4 range runs above average and +4 outs above average. However, you still can’t ignore the -26 DRS, -9.7 UZR/150, -6.6 range runs above average and -10 OAA he had throughout his entire time with the Pirates.

Much of his struggles have stemmed from his awful batted ball rates. His 52.4% ground ball rate would be a single-season high across a full 162 game campaign. He also only has a 16.5% line drive rate, well below the league average 21% mark. His 31% fly ball rate is also well below the league average (36%). Even though Bell is hitting the ball hard, it’s into the ground more than half of the time.

The Nationals will have to pay Bell at least $5.08 million in arbitration over this next offseason. He’s currently making $6.35 million and unless the new CBA requires teams to pay players more in arbitration, then he can’t make less than 20% of that. Most of the time, players get raises, even if they struggle.

The Nats will be facing many questions of their own. Max Scherzer will be their biggest free agent if he isn’t traded this deadline. They may also look into extensions for superstar outfielder Juan Soto, and shortstop Trea Turner. They’ll also see all-star closer Brad Hand, outfielder Kyle Schwarber, infielder Starlin Castro, and former Pittsburgh Pirates All-Star Josh Harrison all hit the free agent market.

With so many key free agents potentially leaving, and talented players that they may look into extensions with, every penny counts. Will they be willing to pay $5-8 million to a player at a very deep position who’s struggled with wild inconsistency year after year with the bat, will be 29 by the end of 2021, and doesn’t have the best track record with the glove when they’re trying to lock down key pieces of their future and a handful of notable free agents hitting the market? Probably not.

So why should the Pittsburgh Pirates show any interest in Bell?

Well, there is a likely possibility that the universal designated hitter returns in 2022 and beyond. The Pittsburgh Pirates aren’t devoid of controllable first basemen/DH capable players. Top prospect Mason Martin has done solid down at Altoona. The 22-year-old will likely be ready for the major leagues by sometime in 2022. The Pirates likely aren’t going to deal Colin Moran either, unless someone blows them away with an offer.

Plus, the Pirates will be lacking in first base depth. This year, we’re seeing what would happen if both Moran and Phillip Evans were to miss a few weeks. With a DH possibly in the mix, the Pirates need to find another player or two who can fill in at 1B and DH. Bell would fit that mold.

But having Bell as a veteran who can help ease Martin into regular playing time at 1B/DH at the major league level is something that the Pirates may look into. Martin will start the 2022 season out at just 22, which is still young. Depending on his development this year, he may not get very much time at Triple-A.

If the Nationals non-tender Bell, the Pittsburgh Pirates may only need a minor league deal at the very least and a $1-$3 million one-year deal at the most to re-sign the switch hitter. But that is still a big if. There’s plenty of seasons left to play. We know how wildly inconsistent Bell is. He could turn it around and have an outstanding August and September to change the Nats’ minds.

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But that isn’t a given. As things stand right now, a non-tender seems like a high possibility for the Nats and Josh Bell. If Bell happens to reach the free-agent market, the Pirates should definitely consider a reunion with the former all-star. After all, there would be little to no risk and would help bridge the gap for young players. In the worst-case scenario, Bell struggles and gets released for next to nothing. In the best-case scenario, the Pirates get a good player who can either be a key part of an improving team, or a valuable trade chip.