Well then. It’s clear after this weekend’s bonanza that saw the Yankees finally wake up from their slumber to sign, uh, José Peraza, that Brian Cashman will look primarily to the trade market if he wants to make any significant improvements to this team. With that in mind, let’s take a look at a player that the Yankees were eying last winter, first baseman Josh Bell.
When the Pittsburgh Pirates shopped the switch-hitting first baseman last year, it came somewhat of a surprise that the Yankees were interested — Bell was coming off a 2020 season that saw him slash just .226/.305/.364 (82 OPS+), while the Yankees had 2020 home run leader Luke Voit at first base. Then the Washington Nationals decided to do some last-minute Christmas shopping and sent to ring in Christmas Eve with a new Bell, and that appeared to be that.
Then the 2019 World Series champions continued their fall from grace, ending the year with a 65-97 record that gave them their second-straight last-place finish in arguably the National League’s worst division. Trade deadline deals sent Max Scherzer and Trea Turner to the Los Angeles Dodgers, Brad Hand to the Toronto Blue Jays, Kyle Schwarber to the Red Sox, and Yan Gomes and Josh Harrison to the Oakland Athletics. The rebuild was on.
Because of this, although there is speculation that Washington could try to lock him up to a long-term extension, Bell could once again find himself the subject of trade rumors as he enters his final year of arbitration headed into his age-29 season. If that’s the case, it stands to reason that the Yankees could, once again, be interested in the 2019 All-Star. But should they?
Make no mistake, Bell is a solid player, and despite a rocky start to his time in Washington (he started the season on the COVID-19 list, then posted a .176/.244/.361 slash with five homers over his first 30 games), he put together a fine season. His 118 wRC+ ranked 13th among first baseman; his 134 wRC+ from June 1st onward ranks eighth, between Pete Alonso and Ryan Mountcastle. He walks a ton, with his 11.4 percent walk rate ranking 25th in baseball among hitters that qualified for the batting title, while his strikeout rate was only 17.8 percent.
Additionally, there’s not much in his Statcast data that suggests serious regression ought to be expected, although I’d personally prefer a higher barrel percentage.
Furthermore, while not known for his glove at first, Bell made great strides defensively in 2021. Statcast had him at four Outs Above Average at first — the first time in his career they graded him positively at any position. FanGraphs’ Defensive Runs Saved and UZR/150 weren’t quite as high on his performance, pegging him at -1 DRS and -3.2 UZR/150; both numbers, however, represent career bests.
There’s just one thing that keeps me from saying, “Absolutely, call up the Nats,” and no, it’s not the fact that he’s just got one year of team control left. It’s the fact that, in essence, the Yankees already have a Josh Bell on their team, albeit a right-handed one, by the name of Luke Voit. I mean, look at the side-by-side comparisons of their 2021 Statcast data — which, need I remind you, was a down year by Voit relative to expectations and a good year for Bell.
Yes, Bell struck out less and walked more, and yes, he had a higher expected batting average, but overall, the quality of contact that both hitters put up were fairly comparable. If anything, I would prefer Voit’s over Bell’s ever so slightly, because he put the ball in the air at a much higher clip (54.3 groundball percentage for Bell, compared to just 41 percent for Voit). Add on Voit’s more extensive track record, and to me, it becomes a no-brainer: Bell simply wouldn’t be worth the cost in prospects that the Yankees would need to give up. While I’m all for the team adding a lefty-swinging first baseman to balance out the lineup, they should not fill that hole by calling up the Washington Nationals.