This is the second part of a debate on Josh Bell’s future with the Nationals. If you want to follow along, I suggest reading Tyler’s article from yesterday first before coming here if you have not already!
When the Nats swung a trade for Pirates first baseman Josh Bell in December 2020, we all came to the conclusion that the team was trending towards attempting to compete again, after a disappointing 2020 put a sobering end to the franchise’s 2019 championship high. There were many who thought that Bell was a sign of the team going further in for 2021, but that didn’t happen, and the team only won 65 games. As Tyler mentioned yesterday, Bell is now heading into his last season under team control, and his future with the Nationals needs to be decided quickly.
Jesse Doughtery of the Washington Post made some interesting arguments when talking to the HSHH pod last week, mostly in how he “feels like a bellwether for the whole rebuild…”, further outlining how extending Bell could accelerate the Nationals into a situation similar to the Red Sox this past year, and how trading him for a big haul could indicate the Nationals aren’t ready to compete until 2024 or beyond.
Yesterday, Tyler showed how he agreed with this sentiment, and especially how he was “open to trading him in the right situation”, provided that the team would most likely do this deal if they “…don’t see themselves being a competitive baseball team again until Bell is in his late 30s”. However, he also made it clear he was most definitely in the “Extend Josh Bell” camp.
This is the crux of the argument. That Josh Bell is essentially the timetable for the Nationals rebuild, and that what they do with him is the yardstick for how the team will proceed in the future. For a number of reasons, I do not agree with this sentiment. But let me get something out of the way first: I am very much in the extension camp as well. I think that having a strong presence at first base is essential to any young baseball team, and Bell’s skill with the bat combines with his strong community presence, great personality, and consistent desire to improve to form a player that I want to see in a Nationals uniform for a very long time if possible. This argument I make is in no way a discredit to Bell, who is a player I admire. Ok. Let’s dance.
Firstly, I find Jesse’s idea that Bell is a measure of the Nats’ rebuild to be a bit ludicrous because of something I learned myself before. Back before the 2021 season, I wrote a piece for HSHH on why the Nats season would be defined by the production of catcher Yan Gomes. Long story short, Gomes had a great first half, but the team as a whole fell apart, and he would be traded to Oakland along with Josh Harrison at the deadline. Yes, I will acknowledge that this situation is not a one-to-one comparison, but it gave me the sense that one player cannot dictate an entire direction for a team. Bell could be given a 5 year extension as soon as the lockout ends. But that doesn’t mean the team is going to take other necessary steps, such as pursuing free agents, working on a Soto extension, or continuing proper farm development to get prospects to Major League status. Vice versa, trading Bell does not mean that the Nationals cannot sign another big name. One player will not define your entire organization’s direction.
Secondly, I’d like to remind everyone that we’ve been through this with Bell before. Remember when we traded for him and the entire fanbase thought that it meant the front office was all in for 2021? Then Kyle Schwarber came around, and we thought we were winning the NL East? Just for the team to call it quits after that? This feels pretty similar. Which tells me exactly what I said already. One player does not signify anything. A solid plan for a rebuild is something that teams tend to keep to their chest regardless of the situation, especially if they want to put butts in seats during the regular season. And while trading Bell for the right offer is definitely a good idea, that is not a proper yardstick. Prospects that we get back in return for him could easily be used as a flip for another superstar on the market, who perhaps is already on a better deal or who is more willing to sign long-term in Washington, and could accelerate the rebuild even faster than Bell could. Truthfully, I feel as though there are too many variables to assume that Josh Bell alone determines the team’s direction, especially when there are so many other factors to consider.
Third, I’m going to also state that rebuilds take a variable length of time, and things almost never go as expected. What if Josiah Gray doesn’t pan out? What if the Nationals get an incredible offer for an essential piece and end up deciding it’s better to move Juan Soto than extend him? We’ve seen some contracts that looked great in immediacy turn into absolute garbage. This doesn’t even apply to just baseball. Remember when John Wall tore his achilles by tripping on the stairs in his house? While I can sob quietly about how dirty the Wizards did Wall all I want (and last night too), I digress. The point here is that a rebuild can take a massive left turn at any moment. As a result, it’s hard to say that Bell alone is the measurement.
All in all, Josh Bell is an incredible player who the Nationals should work their hardest to extend, and also to find the best deal possible for him if this is not feasible. But, as I’ve stated, to assume that he is the franchise’s measurement for their rebuild length is a short sighted statement that does not count for enough variables. In any case, I hope Bell is here for a long, long time.