Ah, Josh Bell. Many had high hopes for the slugging first baseman as he came up through the system. While he was at Triple-A Indianapolis, I made the trip to Durham to watch the Indians take on the Bulls. I sat in seats up the first base line, close to the action. Bell went 0-for-4 in that game, but I made sure to point out to my girlfriend at the time (now my wife) that the man she saw playing first base was bound to make a huge splash in Pittsburgh, both metaphorically and literally (hello, Allegheny).
Since Bell’s arrival in Pittsburgh, the waters have been turbulent. He posted positive fWAR numbers in each of his three full seasons, including an All-Star appearance in 2019 when he was worth 2.5 wins. He hit 37 home runs a year ago and posted a wRC+ of 135. Bell wanted to replicate his 2019 numbers coming into 2020, but then COVID hit and everyone got thrown out of normalcy.
I’m reluctant to fault players too much for their 2020 struggles. In a year without normal routines, where teams only played 60 games, and where much of the offseason was spent bickering between players and owners, I imagine it would be difficult to get into gear. No team represented that phenomenon better than the Pirates. Multiple Buccos struggled to reach a semblance of past performances, not least of which includes Bell.
Back in 2018, I wrote a long form piece about why the Pirates should entertain trading Bell. I reasoned that his value was fairly high at the time and that the Pirates weren’t likely to be competitive in the near term. The Pirates went on to go 82-79 that season, finishing fourth in the division. But that team was overachieving the whole way. The next season showed us that very thing, and then, of course, 2020 was awful all the way around.
But what I didn’t expect in 2018 was that Bell’s value would skyrocket the next season. After a terrible 2020 in which Bell slashed .226/.305/.364 with eight home runs over 223 plate appearances, Bell’s value is lower than ever. But I suspect that won’t make teams shy away all that much from Bell. It may be true that Bell’s current value won’t garner as much of a return at this point, but at the deadline next year, hopefully he’ll have at least shown signs of his 2019 self. Given the Pirates’ reluctance to hold onto assets — rightly or wrongly — if Bell isn’t producing for a second consecutive season, it could be argued that it still makes the most sense to move him, regardless of output.
This is the difficulty of being a Pirates fan. Bell is a likable player and he may well be a productive one again, but the Pirates don’t have much utility for his services. By the time the Pirates are able to field a competitive team again, we’re likely looking at three or four years, minimum, down the road, at which point Bell will be in his age 31 season. At 28, it’s time to move Bell for younger, more controllable pieces.