In recent days, given the wasteland of actual Major League Baseball news, other sites around the baseball sphere have explored hypothetical transactions.
One such hypothetical that’s come up more than a couple of times is that the Washington Nationals should explore trading a man that they acquired last offseason, Josh Bell.
After a slow start to his time in DC, Bell recovered to finish the year with a solid slash line of .261/.347/.476 while clubbing 27 home runs and tallying 88 RBIs. He also provided much-needed protection in the lineup for Juan Soto, swinging a hot bat in the second half.
“He’s been terrific for us all season,” GM Mike Rizzo told reporters in early October.
“He had a terrific Spring Training, then got sidetracked with COVID and I think that he turned the naysayers early in the season into believers, and is a guy that at 28, 29 years old, and a career .800 OPS — that was the player we traded for and that’s the player we got.”
MLBTradeRumors first wrote about Bell as a trade candidate late last week, Call to the Pen then published a piece on Bell as a quiet trade piece, and then our fellow SB Nation site, DRays Bay, looked at a possible trade for Bell to the Tampa Bay Rays.
The reasoning behind the idea is straightforward. The Nationals probably aren’t going to be competing in 2022 and with Bell set to enter his final year of arbitration in 2022, he’s not a lock to be with the team beyond this year.
Despite only trading for Bell just over 12 months ago, there’s definitely at least an argument that the front office should cut their losses and at least get something for the first baseman before he’s a free agent at the end of the season and can leave for nothing.
But what could the Nats realistically get in return for Bell in a potential trade?
In their article, Drays Bay suggested Alika Williams and Ian Seymour, Tampa Bay’s supplemental and second-round picks from the shortened 2020 draft, both of whom made late cameos in Triple-A to end the year but still only project as high-risk, high-reward prospects.
If it doesn’t sound overly enticing, that’s because it’s not. For a first baseman-only who is set to earn $10 million in arbitration for 2022, according to MLBTradeRumors, Bell is not especially valuable as a trade commodity in this day and age.
Because of that, it’s actually possible that Bell could have more value to the Nationals this season and beyond as they transition to their next contending roster and maybe be a part of it.
At 29-years-old, age is still on the first baseman’s side. If the Nationals do plan to get back to contention before Soto becomes a free agent at the end of the 2024 season, then Bell still projects to be a productive big league hitter when that time comes for the team.
Obviously, it would be better if the Nationals had a younger option, but as of right now, the Nats don’t really have much in the way of legitimate first base prospects in their system.
The highest-rated first base prospect the Nationals have is Drew Mendoza who slashed just .206/.316/.318 between High-A and Double-A. The next best appears to be Branden Boissiere, the team’s third-round pick in 2021, but he had a lackluster start to his pro career.
Even as he gets into his early 30s on a potential extension, Bell projects to be the best option currently with the organization at first base for quite a few more years yet.
Aside from the performance aspect of things and how he projects in the lineup long-term, having someone like Bell in the clubhouse and in the local DC community, in general, can only be a positive thing.
For a GM like Mike Rizzo, who puts a lot of emphasis on a player’s character before acquiring them, having someone like that around, even more so in a retool, is invaluable.
“His impact in the clubhouse is irreplaceable,” Rizzo explained at the end of the season. “He’s been terrific in the clubhouse, and he’s been a mentor for the young players, and he’s a shining example of what a big leaguer should be.”
So how much could an extension for Bell cost? Well, there’s actually a pretty good recent comp.
Ahead of the 2020 season, Miguel Sano of the Minnesota Twins signed a three-year, $30 million extension, with a $14 million team option for a fourth year, to stay in the Twin Cities.
To that point in Sano’s career, through five seasons, he had slashed .245/.338/.498 with 118 home runs, 315 RBIs, and an OPS+ of 122. Bell, meanwhile, through his six big league seasons so far has a similar .261/.348/.468 and OPS+ of 118 to go with 113 long balls and 397 RBIs.
Both Sano and Bell have had a tendency of being streaky hitters in their careers, sometimes carrying their respective offenses, while also having prolonged struggles at the plate. They even both stand to be first base or DH-only players and aren’t considered plus defenders.
Perhaps the Nationals could put a three-year, $40 million deal with some incentives and a team option in front of Bell. Would that be enough to tempt the first baseman to commit to a longer stay in the nation’s capital, especially with Scott Boras as his agent? It’s possible.
It’s always tempting for teams who are staring down the barrel of a retool or rebuild to just trade away everything that has even a little bit of trade value. However, there are exceptions when players provide more value during that rebuild than their potential return in a trade.
After just one year with the Nationals, Bell proved both on and off the field, he might be such an exception…