Over the holiday, the Nationals got better and the Pirates got ever-so-slightly worse. The two teams completed a trade sending switch-hitting first baseman Josh Bell to the Nationals in exchange for a pair of right-handed pitching prospects: Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean.
Bell had a lousy year (so relatable), but here’s the requisite reminder that a 60-game season doesn’t mean a whole lot. His .226/.305/.364 slash line means about as much as Brandon Belt’s .309/.425/.591 line does. There are reasons to think he’ll be back to his usual self which is a hitter that’s roughly 10 percent better than league average. A .273 is a smidge low and he’s still hitting the ball hard.
There are also reasons to be a little concerned. Bell’s 60-game slump might not be something one would notice over the course of a season, but if we tack it on to the end of last season, it starts to look like an actual down year. Over his last 594 plate appearances (so going back to June 1, 2019), Bell has mustered a .317 wOBA and 96 wRC+. If Bell were an elite defender, that’d be perfectly fine, but Bell doesn’t play a premium position and he doesn’t play it particularly well. He was worth -5 outs above average in 2019, and he’s never had a positive season according to DRS.
The dip in offensive production was accompanied by increased swing and miss rate. Naturally, Bell struck out a career-high 26.5 percent of the time. Even that was mostly driven by an extremely slow start to the season, but he rebounded by season’s end.
Bell probably (hopefully) won’t have to start the year after a month’s-long hiatus and a short ramp-up where the only live competition is intrasquad games. The Nationals should be getting an above-average regular to plug one of their holes.
For the Pirates, things will continue to get worse before they get better. Even with the rest of the NL Central actively trying to make itself worse, Pittsburgh isn’t going to contend with or without Josh Bell, but he makes the team that much less fun to watch. He was an All-Star in MLB’s last full season, and though that’s more indicative of a hot first half, the Pirates aren’t likely to send more than one representative to the next Midsummer Classic.
The trade can be a practical step backward and a reminder that Pittsburgh still has a ways to go before they’re ready to surge forward. Bell might not be the only player traded away this winter. Any one of Joe Musgrove, Steven Brault, or Chad Kuhl could be dealt with Wil Crowe ostensibly major league ready. Adam Frazier is another candidate to be moved. Like Bell, Frazier won’t be a free agent until 2023, and he’s a league-average bat that plays at second and the outfield.
None of the above is to take anything away from Wil Crowe, who is a better pitcher than his 2020 debut would indicate. Nor should it diminish Eddy Yean who is arguably the better get although at 19, he’s much farther from the majors than Crowe is. Crowe’s fastball sits 92-94 mph, and his best pitch is his changeup. Yean enters Pittsburgh’s system ranked seventh according to MLB Pipeline. Yean’s fastball hits 97 mph, and he backs that up with an excellent slider.
Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.