Did The Pittsburgh Pirates Do Their Best In The Josh Bell Trade

Did The Pirates get the best possible return for Josh Bell at the time?

Sep 24, 2020; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA;  Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman Josh Bell (55) hits a
Sep 24, 2020; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman Josh Bell (55) hits a / Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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The Josh Bell may have reached it's conclusion for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and all parties formerly involved. However, did the team get the best possible return at the time?

The Pittsburgh Pirates recently designated Wil Crowe for assignment. Barring a massive turnaround from minor league right-hander Eddy Yean, the Josh Bell trade may have seen its conclusion in Pittsburgh. It’s a fairly underwhelming end, but did the Pirates do their best for Bell at the time? Before we get into it however, I want to preface this by saying this is in no way saying the trade worked out well for the Pirates. This is only looking at it in hindsight.

When the Pirates traded Bell, he was still pretty fresh off a strong 2019 campaign but struggled in 2020. Granted, the 2020 season was so short, the numbers didn’t mean much. Crowe was one of the Washington Nationals’ best prospects. Remember that this was well before the Juan Soto and Max Scherzer/Trea Turner trades. Yean was also a fairly significant prospect in the Nationals’ system and arguably the headliner at the time. Both FanGraphs and MLB Pipeline ranked them as two of the Nats’ top ten prospects.

Bell had plenty of promise as a hitter. In 2019, he hit .277/.367/.569 with 37 home runs, a .386 wOBA, and 135 wRC+. Bell drew walks at a well above average 12.1% rate and also had a healthy 19.2% strikeout rate. Even though he had just a 76 wRC+ the following year during the shortened 2020 season, Bell still managed to put up a strong exit velocity, hard-hit rate, and barrel rate, showing that there was still plenty of potential with the hit bat despite the so-so shortened season.

But 2019 was really the first and only time Bell had been a well-above-average batter. Between 2017 and 2018, Bell batted just .258/.345/.440 with a .337 wOBA and 109 wRC+. These are solid numbers, no doubt, but they’re not the kind of numbers you’d expect from a guy whose bat is his meal ticket. It also doesn’t help that Bell was essentially two different hitters in 2017 and 2018. In 2017, he hit 26 home runs, had a 10.6% walk rate, and .211 isolated slugging percentage. In 2018, he batted .261 with a 13.2% walk rate but hit just a dozen home runs and had an ISO of .150.

Even then, Bell’s 2019 season was a roller coaster. In April and May, he had an MVP-worthy 178 wRC+. June and July saw him manage just a 93 wRC+. August and September would see Bell rebound to a 125 wRC+, but still not near his early-season peak. It’s not as if Bell was a consistent 135 wRC+ hitter during that entire season.

It doesn’t help that Bell was also one of the worst defensive first basemen during his tenure with the Pirates. Bell had -20 DRS from 2017-2020, which outpaced only Luke Voit and Chris Davis. Both UZR/150 and outs above average painted him in a poor light, at just -9.1 and -15, respectively. In terms of overall fWAR, Bell was the 22nd most valuable 1B at +4.4. Bell wasn’t able to surpass +5 fWAR in over 500 games and 2039 plate appearances.

Crowe had some ups and downs himself in 2019 prior to the trade. Crowe opened the year with the Nats’ Double-A affiliate, where he had a solid 3.87 ERA but a 3.15 FIP and 1.12 WHIP in 95.1 innings. Crowe was excellent at keeping walks to a minimum with a 5.7% walk rate, which paired nicely with his 23.7% strikeout rate and 0.76 HR/9. Crowe’s strong numbers for their Double-A affiliate earned him a promotion to Triple-A, where he struggled to the tune of a 6.17 ERA, 5.47 FIP, and 1.70 WHIP. Crowe’s strikeout rate dipped to just 16.4% and his once strong walk rate skyed to 10.4%. His home run rate also trended in the wrong direction to 1.17.

Crowe is mostly projected as the back of the rotation arm. FanGraphs drew the comparison to former Nationals’ stalwart Tanner Roark as what Crowe could eventually develop into. Crowe certainly had potential as a solid starting pitcher, but many likely saw Yean as the headliner of the deal. He’s still young enough that maybe he will figure something out.

Yean hadn’t pitched much yet at the time of the swap. When he did throw, he displayed a big fastball, one that averaged out in the mid-90s as a teenager. He also paired that with a slider and change-up, both with above-average potential. At 6’1”, 180 pounds, and a clean delivery, some saw him as a future starting pitcher. Given his athleticism, physicality, and pitch selection, I even thought he could become a top-100 prospect.

One thing to consider is that the first base and designated hitter market weren’t completely barren, but it wasn’t fruitful either. Mitch Moreland, Jedd Gyroko, and Renato Nunez represented some of the decent first-base options. Marcell Ozuna and Nelson Cruz were the two best designated hitter options. While Bell had some competition, the only major competitors were Ozuna and Cruz for DH. The trade market for DH/1B options was pretty much in the Pirates’ and Bell’s court.

I think the argument the Pirates sold very low on Bell because of his poor 2020 season is blown a little out of proportion. When you look at a sample size of less than 250 plate appearances, you’re going to have a lot of odd numbers and outliers. Many guys had career years in 2020 and haven’t come close to repeating them, including the likes of Wil Myers, Luke Voit, Kyle Lewis, Dinelson Lamet, Dylan Bundy, and Rafael Dolis all had great 2020 seasons, but some are out of the league by now. Bell’s value didn’t all of a sudden plummet because of this poor stretch.

In the end, I think you have to consider what the Pirates had, what the market held, and the kind of player Bell is/was, and see the Pirates really didn’t get bad value for Bell at the time. I’m not going to sit here and tell you the trade worked out fine for the Pirates (it didn’t), but for what it was at the time, you couldn’t have been too mad at the return. I do think the Pirates sold maybe a little low because the market was playing in their favor. But I can’t imagine they could have gotten anything significantly better than two of a team’s top ten prospects. 

Bell, once you factored in his defense, was a two-win, maybe two-and-a-half-win player a season. His 2021 and 2022 campaigns were pretty much what you’d expect from him: half a good season, half a mediocre season, meh at best defense at first base, +1.9 fWAR in each year. The trade didn’t work out, obviously, but I think the Pirates did the best they could do at the time.