Nationals acquire All-Star first baseman Josh Bell in trade with Pirates

The Washington Nationals acquired first baseman Josh Bell from the rebuilding Pittsburgh Pirates in a trade.

The team announced the deal Thursday afternoon. Two pitching prospects — Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean — will go to the Pirates.

The Washington Nationals have acquired 1B Josh Bell from the Pittsburgh Pirates.

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— Washington Nationals (@Nationals) December 24, 2020

Bell, a rare switch-hitting slugger, had a breakout 2019 season that won him his first All-Star berth. He smashed 37 homers, drove in 116 runs and batted .277. The abbreviated 2020 slate was rough for both him and the Pirates, as he batted just .226.

Josh Bell fills hole for Nationals

The 2020 season wasn’t much better for the Nationals. The defending World Series champs limped to a disappointing 26-34 finish.

They had a hole at first base going into 2021 as a mutual option with Eric Thames was declined, while veteran utilityman (and World Series hero) Howie Kendrick retired. Washington mainstay Ryan Zimmerman, who opted out of the 2020 season, has said he intends to play in 2021. If he resumes his career, it would almost certainly be with Nationals, but at age 36, he wouldn’t be expected to play every day.

Outside of that slow 2020, the 28-year-old Bell has been a strong lineup presence since the moment he got to the big leagues in 2016. He has logged OPS+ marks of at least 108 in every other season (meaning his offensive production has been at least 8 percent better than league average). In 2019, his 142 mark ranked 12th in MLB.

A bounce back could give the Nationals a much-needed middle-of-the-order bat to complement Juan Soto, the precocious superstar who was baseball’s best hitter in 2020 — leading MLB in OPS. The Nationals still boast a star-studded (and expensive) starting rotation, including Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin that points toward contention in a crowded NL East.

Pirates keep rebuilding

Pittsburgh is entering its second year under general manager Ben Cherington and looks committed to continuing a teardown that jettisons veterans in favor of future potential. The Pirates went just 19-41 in 2020, but saw the debut of promising third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes.

Crowe and Yean, the prospects joining the Pirates in the deal, were both top 10 prospects in a relatively weak Nationals farm system. The 26-year-old Crowe briefly debuted in the big leagues in 2020, allowing an 11.88 ERA in 8 1/3 innings, and could see time in Pittsburgh in 2021.

Yean, still 19 years old, topped out in Low-A ball in 2019.

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