Josh Bell delivered on high expectations during Nationals tenure

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Bell delivered on high expectations during Nationals tenure originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

WASHINGTON — Josh Bell arrived in D.C. during the 2020-21 offseason with high expectations despite coming off a down year. He departed having lived up to them.

The Washington Nationals traded the switch-hitting first baseman to the San Diego Padres on Tuesday as part of the historic Juan Soto deadline deal that landed the club six players with which to build their franchise around. While Soto headlined the trade, Bell was a significant pickup for a Padres team looking to lengthen its lineup.

While now forever attached to one of the most historic trades in MLB history, Bell’s tenure in Washington is also defined by his ability to revive his career and rediscover the offensive prowess that enticed the Nationals to acquire him in the first place.

President of Baseball Operations and GM Mike Rizzo identified Bell as one of his top offseason targets following the 2020 season. He acquired him that December, sending young right-handed pitchers Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean to the Pittsburgh Pirates for two seasons of Bell. Rizzo spoke at the time about what they hoped they were getting in the then-27-year-old.

“We think this is a big upgrade for us and [the] middle-of-the-lineup presence that we’ve been looking for,” Rizzo said. “We never stop trying to improve the club. We certainly won’t this offseason, but this fulfills a big part of our wish list in getting this middle-of-the-lineup bat.

“He fits in the middle of that lineup somewhere for us and being a switch hitter only adds to his value as far as keeping the lineup long, making it more manageable for the field manager and a guy that we have high expectations for.”

There were some question marks about Bell’s bat. He was an All-Star in 2019 but had struggled in the second half of that season before posting some dreadful numbers during the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign. While the Nationals would later sign Kyle Schwarber, he had just been non-tendered by the Chicago Cubs and wasn’t being held to the same standard.

Bell’s poor offensive output carried over into his first few weeks with the Nationals. After his season debut was delayed by a stint on the COVID IL, he hit just .133 over his first month’s worth of games. Then, Bell settled in and performed like the player he was expected to be. He went on to hit 27 home runs and provide the middle-of-the-lineup protection for Soto, even if the team didn’t meet its expectations and ultimately tore the roster down at the deadline.

“Some weeks, I felt like I’ve played really well,” Bell said Friday, four days before he was traded. “Others, not so much. If I look at it in my entirety here, yeah, I think I’ve done a pretty decent job. But I’ve had some tough weeks too so that’s just the game. The thing I’m most proud of is just being able to play every day. That’s the most important thing for me.”

He finished his Nationals career with a .278 average, .846 OPS and 41 home runs in 247 games. Bell’s slash line in Washington (.278/.363/.483) outproduced the one he put up in his five seasons with the Pirates (.261/.349/.466). He was also even better this year than he was in 2021, falling just short of earning his second career All-Star selection.

“He’s been above and beyond,” manager Davey Martinez said. “We didn’t really feel like we were taking a chance on Josh Bell. We thought that he had a possibility to be the guy he is and he’s showing that. We talk about how well he’s hitting, but for me his defense has actually gotten way better than what we expected and that’s a testament to how hard he’s worked.”

The advanced metrics agree. Bell accrued three Defensive Runs Saved at first base this year following six straight seasons in the negatives. It made him all the more valuable, especially for a team in the Nationals with holes all over the roster.

Even though the team didn’t reach its expectations during Bell’s tenure, he certainly did. After spending his entire career enduring various stages of rebuilds with both the Pirates and Nationals, he will finally get a much-deserved chance to put his talents to use in a pennant race.