Outside of the core fan base, the Nationals aren’t giving many people reasons to follow them this season.
Sure, those who play fantasy baseball are watching to see if Josiah Gray breaks out or will be monitoring the hoped development of Luis Garcia.
But other than Juan Soto and a possible emerging star in Keibert Ruiz, there aren’t many compelling reasons to keep tabs on the Nationals for the average baseball fan. This team has quickly fallen from the heights of being a World Series champion, and in near-Marlins-like fashion, they tore down the roster in significant ways last July.
Josh Bell is still on the team, though, and is one of the guys who makes it worth the price of admission at Nationals Park.
Will Josh Bell Build On His 2021 Season in Washington?
A Strong Finish After A Slow Start
After a disappointing pandemic-shortened season in 2020, things did not start off well for Bell in Washington as the Nationals hoped he would regain his 2019 form. That season, Bell hit .277 with 37 home runs and 116 RBI. After battling COVID-19 prior to the 2021 opener, he came out of the gate slowly.
Bell hit .113 with two home runs and five RBI in April. He started to pick up the pace thereafter but still finished the first half of the season with a .245 average, 12 homers, and 42 RBI. In the second half, he hit .277 with 15 homers and 46 RBI. Bell hit over .280 in June and July.
He hit .293 in September and October. Bell popped six homers in July and August.
“I think, for me honestly, it’s just him getting ready on time and seeing the ball a little earlier than he was, as opposed to earlier in the season,” manager Dave Martinez said in September (federalbaseball.com).
Bell finished with a .823 OPS, which was the second highest of his career, but not quite on par with his .936 mark in 2019. It may have been unrealistic to expect him to reach such a number again, though, and he did bounce back well overall after the quiet opening to the year.
What it was encouraging that Bell finished 2021 with a batting average of .261; his xBA was .277. His final slugging percentage was .476, but his xSLG was .487. Bell may never quite match what he did in 2019, but he should be headed for another good season in 2022.
Will Josh Bell Stay in Washington?
Bell should likely hit cleanup for the Nationals this season, but one concern may be that he won’t have much protection in the lineup behind him. That is one factor that could prevent him from hitting .270 or reaching 30 homers again.
Bell is in a contract season, though, and that could prove to be both a good and bad factor for the Nationals. Having the motivation of an impending payday often seems to be an intangible booster for some players. But Washington is not expected to contend again in the near future, so Bell’s name has been popping up in trade rumors recently.
Bell is one of the solid pillars in the Nationals lineup, and dealing him away could make the offense look even worse. But the team also has to look to the future, and at age 29, Bell should have more years ahead of him to offer another contending franchise. Trading Bell, though, also weakens the lineup considerably behind Soto.
Ryan Zimmerman has retired, so Bell should be leaned on even more this season as the primary first baseman. If the Nationals want to remain competitive at all day to day and don’t want to be a pushover, then they will have to consider keeping Bell and possibly offer him an extension.
The Future Beyond 2022
We don’t mean to keep beating up on the Marlins in this article, but they often seem to be a franchise that lacks any direction and doesn’t intend to contend. That seems to be why Derek Jeter left the organization. The Nationals may have sold off some superstars last summer, but there are signals that they can regain respectability soon.
Washington did acquire Ruiz and Gray, and those young players can be two key performers in a rebuild over the next few seasons. There will also be the question of how far the Nationals are willing to go to retain Soto, but he is still with the team, at least through the 2024 season. If Washington wants to stay on a path back to being a quality team, it has to consider retaining Bell.
Not only is Bell relied on as a power source in the middle of the lineup, but he is also regarded as a strong clubhouse presence. It’s a big plus to have a guy like Bell as a foundational veteran on a team that may be counting on some young players in the next few seasons. If the Nationals get back into contention in the next few seasons, Bell can also still be a significant contributor on a better team.
Simply suggesting Bell should be traded to further accelerate a rebuild may be short-sighted. The Nationals still likely want to put something of a decent team on the field and not turn into a full embarrassment. Maybe they are no longer contenders, but they should want to remain competitive enough on a game-to-game basis. Keeping Bell does assure that the Nationals won’t be putting a totally pathetic squad on the field.
Extending Bell will keep a sturdy presence in the lineup, the locker room, and dugout for a few years to come while the Nationals shape their direction. Washington has been a mostly winning team over the last decade, and they will be actively looking to return to prominence.
It would not be surprising to see them move Bell for more future pieces, but sticking with him could benefit the Nationals in ways that may impact them more than just what their 2022 finish may be. He could be a bridge to the next era of improved Nationals baseball.
Featured Image: Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY Sports