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Another look at the Josh Bell deal

2019 MLB All-Star Game, presented by Mastercard Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

I’m not sure how most readers feel about this, but to me, baseball’s offseason – the so-called Hot Stove – is almost as much fun as the six months that games are actually being played.

Thinking and talking about baseball – or writing about it – provide hours of entertainment. The sport produces a never-ending supply of material to tide fans through the days and weeks and months when the next game seems a million miles away.

Among the more fun aspects of the offseason is the opportunity to grade trades. Logically, one would say it makes no sense to try to grade or evaluate a trade within a few days or weeks – at least if it’s made in the offseason. But that never stops fans from doing so, and that certainly has been the case over the past week or so in the wake of the Josh Bell deal.

Many Pirates fans were understandably upset about the trade – the timing of it and the return being at the top of the list for most of those unhappy folks. I’ll admit when I saw the names heading back to 115 Federal Street in exchange for what passed as the “face of the franchise,” I felt let down. Not because I knew anything about Eddy Yean or Wil Crowe. I’d never heard of either guy, and I would bet most Pirates fans would say the same thing. I just thought that somehow more would be coming back if the Bucs ever parted ways with Bell – at least someone among baseball’s top 100 prospects.

Now, I know a little more about Yean and Crowe than I did when the trade was announced on Christmas Eve. But I can’t begin to think I know anything close to what Pirates’ talent evaluators know – and likely have known about them for at least a couple of years. The 26-year-old Crowe, who had Tommy John Surgery in 2015 while attending the University of South Carolina and was the Nationals’ second-round draft pick two years later, should offer some immediate help, particularly if the Bucs follow through on dealing Joe Musgrove and limiting Jameson Taillon’s innings coming back from his second Tommy John surgery. Nationals GM Mike Rizzo described Crowe in a Washington Post article as a “back-of-the-rotation starting pitcher, a consistent pitcher with multiple pitches.” As for the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Yean, Rizzo said, “If he’s healthy, he’ll impact the major league roster. He’s years away with big upside.”

Detractors of the trade point to Crowe’s age, believing that a guy in his late 20s is no longer an actual prospect, but more of a suspect. And they point to his 2020 numbers, which show an 0-2 record, an 11.88 ERA, 14 hits and eight walks allowed in 8.1 innings. There’s some merit to that first line of thinking, although the Nationals’ pitching staff has had a few decent arms in the persons of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin over the past couple of seasons. As for the second complaint, I can’t get behind the idea of judging someone on the basis of 8 innings.

In the same Washington Post article mentioned earlier, Pirates’ GM Ben Cherington praised the 19-year-old Yean’s fastball and slider and added that his changeup is developing. “He’s a strong, physical kid who we think has a chance to be durable,” Cherington said of Yean, who apparently has put on about 50 pounds since he signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2017. The first person I thought of when I read Cherington’s remarks was Luis Heredia – strong, physical, chance to be durable. It never happened for Heredia, whom the Pirates signed out of Mexico in 2010 as a 16-year-old to a $2.6 million bonus – the largest the club had ever paid to an international free agent. Heredia spent parts of seven seasons in the Pirates organization before being released prior to the 2018 season. He was last seen pitching for Dos Laredos in the Mexican League in 2019.

Critics are concerned that Bell, once he arrives in DC, will rediscover the stroke that saw him put together an all-world first two months of the 2019 season, when he hit 18 home runs, drove in 52 and compiled an OPS of 1.109 in 56 games. In other words, they’re afraid he might become the latest in a line of young players like Gerrit Cole, Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows who finally realize their potential only after leaving Pittsburgh.

It’s completely understandable to harbor such thoughts. And many believe that while Bell would never be a part of the Pirates’ real future – if there is one – the club should have held on to him to allow him to regain his luster and then deal him for a better return at the 2021 All-Star break. I can see the merit in that argument. But given his defensive liabilities and his tendency for streakiness, I think the Pirates did the right thing by making the move now, rather than later.

One of the things I found myself doing shortly after the Bell trade was announced was comparing the return the Pirates got in that deal with that of the Cole-to-Houston trade. In hindsight, of course, the Pirates got hosed, given what Cole has become. But at the time Cole was dealt, I was among those in the minority who didn’t mind the move, given the unlikelihood of him re-signing with Pittsburgh. And part of me wondered if the two-year stretch he was coming off – one that saw him go a combined 19-22 with a 4.12 ERA (3.81 FIP) with a 1.32 WHIP – was perhaps a harbinger of things to come. After all, not all high-pedigree pitchers ultimately reach their vast potential. Mark Appel, anyone? Of course, Cole proved me as wrong as could be, and the players the Pirates received in return haven’t come close to measuring up to him, although Musgrove has been good in stretches could be a major asset to someone if he can stay healthy for a full season.

So, how does the Cole return stack up with the return the Pirates received for Bell? Keith Law, writing in The Athletic, characterized the return as “decent,” but to me, it’s hard to compare the two trades. For one thing, the Bucs received four players for Cole and just two for Bell. And for another, we haven’t even seen Yean or Crowe throw a pitch in anger yet. But the thing I like about the Bell deal is that Cherington and Co. took a shot at a high-upside guy in Yean while the previous regime played it safer in going after guys like Musgrove, Michael Feliz and Colin Moran – potentially serviceable big leaguers but not likely to make a huge difference. That alone – the willingness to shoot for the high ceiling – sets Cherington apart from Neal Huntington, and I’m willing to give this deal a few years before casting any final judgment.