PITTSBURGH – Josh Bell embraced everything about being a Pittsburgh Pirate. He understood as the club retooled following the departure of stars Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole that he would serve as the de facto face of the franchise.
It's a responsibility Bell ran toward. He became heavily involved in the community. He developed a bond with the family of Hall of Fame first baseman Willie “Pops” Stargell. He blossomed into an All-Star in 2019 looking every bit the cornerstone the Pirates could rebuild around.
And now he's gone.
The Pirates sent the 28-year-old Bell to Washington on Thursday, giving the Nationals the middle-of-the-order bat general manager Mike Rizzo said was an offseason priority for the perennial NL East contenders.
Washington sent pitching prospects Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean to Pittsburgh for Bell, a move Pirates general manager Ben Cherington called necessary to give Pittsburgh the organizational depth it needs to build something successful down the road.
“In order to build that winning team and get to that winning team it’s going to require some difficult decisions at times, this is one of those," Cherington said.
Bell was an All-Star in 2019 following a torrid first half in which he hit .302 with 27 home runs and 84 RBIs. That form has been elusive over the last year-plus. Bell hit .233 with 10 home runs during an injury-shortened second half of 2019 and batted a career-low .226 in 57 games for the Pirates in 2020. Pittsburgh finished 19-41, the worst record in the majors.
Bell believed he could be the cornerstone for Pittsburgh as the Pirates looked to retool under Cherington and manager Derek Shelton, both of whom came aboard following the team's disastrous second-half collapse in 2019 that led to a top-to-bottom revamp in the organization.
Instead, Bell joins Cole, McCutchen and outfielder Starling Marte as players sent elsewhere after Pittsburgh chose to flip them for either less expensive major leaguers or well-regarded prospects they hope can make an impact down the road.
Bell goes from a team in the midst of a long-term rebuild to one just 14 months removed from a World Series title. The Nationals fell to 26-34 and last in the NL East in 2020, but Rizzo said this month he expects Washington to have the budget to put a championship-caliber club together. Bell, who made a pro-rated $1,777,778 in 2020 from a scheduled $4.8 million, is under contractual control through at least the 2022 season. He is one of three arbitration-eligible players for the Nationals, joining outfielder Juan Soto and shortstop Trea Turner.
The 26-year-old Crowe is one of Washington's top pitching prospects. He went 0-2 with an 11.88 ERA in three starts for the Nationals in 2020. Cherington said there's a chance Crowe could make an impact at the big league level in 2021.
Yean, 19, signed with Washington as a non-drafted free agent in 2017. He has posted a 3-5 record with 75 strikeouts while playing in the low minors.
Bell's exit takes the second-highest salary off Pittsburgh's books behind right fielder Gregory Polanco's scheduled $11.6 million. Cherington, however, noted the Pirates are likely not done dealing.
“To build a winning team and sustain that in Pittsburgh, we’re going to need to continue to focus on the accumulation of talent and then the development of that talent, and that comes from all different avenues,” Cherington said. “But trade is one of them, and this is the time of the year where those conversations happen, so we’ll continue them.”
Cherington expects there to be a reaction from a fanbase that has grown accustomed to seeing its most high-profile players leave town. The Pirates, however, were unlikely to sign Bell to a long-term deal. Combine that likelihood with the timeframe the club sees as necessary to replicate the success that teams with modest budgets like Tampa Bay and Oakland have achieved meant parting with Bell — as tough as it was — was the right call.
“I believe what Pirates fans want is a winning team more than they want to root for a single player, even one who is a really good guy and a good player,” Cherington said. "If we think about that, that’s how we see it.”
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