PITTSBURGH – Josh Bell embraced everything about being a Pittsburgh Pirate. He understood that as the club reorganized after the departure of stars Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole, he would serve as the de facto face of the franchise.
It is a responsibility for which Bell ran. He was strongly involved with the community. He developed a bond with the family of the first Hall of Fame baseman, Willie “Pops” Stargell. It flourished as an All-Star in 2019, looking like every piece of the cornerstone that the Pirates could rebuild.
And now he’s gone.
The Pirates sent Bell, 28, to Washington on Thursday, giving the Nationals the middle baton of the order, Mike Rizzo, who said he was an off-season priority for the constant NL East contenders.
Washington sent candidates Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean to Pittsburgh for Bell, a change that Pirates general manager Ben Cherington considered necessary to give Pittsburgh the organizational depth it needs to build something successful in the future.
“To build this winning team and reach that winning team, sometimes it will take some difficult decisions, this is one of them,” said Cherington.
Bell was an All-Star in 2019, after a torrid first semester in which he hit 0.302 with 27 home runs and 84 RBIs. That form has been elusive over the past year. Bell hit 0.233 with 10 home runs during a reduced second half due to an injury in 2019 and hit a low of 0.226 in 57 games for Pirates in 2020. Pittsburgh finished 19-41, the worst record between championships.
Bell believed he could be the cornerstone for Pittsburgh as the Pirates sought to reorganize under Cherington and manager Derek Shelton, both of whom embarked after the team’s disastrous second-half collapse in 2019, which led to a complete overhaul of the organization.
Instead, Bell joins Cole, McCutchen and outfielder Starling Mars as players sent elsewhere after Pittsburgh chose to switch to less expensive major league players or high-profile players who they hope can have a impact on the future.
Bell goes from a team in the middle of a long-term reconstruction to just 14 months removed from a World Series title. The National Championship dropped to 26-34 and the last at NL East in 2020, but Rizzo said this month he hopes Washington will have the budget to set up a championship caliber club. Bell, who won $ 1,777,778 prorates in 2020 out of a scheduled $ 4.8 million, is under contractual control until at least the 2022 season. He is one of three players qualified for refereeing for Nacional, joining the outfielder Juan Soto and shortstop Trea Turner.
Crowe, 26, is one of Washington’s top prospects for launch. He went 0-2 with an ERA of 11.88 in three games for Nacional in 2020. Cherington said there was a chance that Crowe would make an impact at the level of the major league in 2021.
Yean, 19, signed on with Washington as a free agent not called up in 2017. He posted a record 3 to 5 with 75 eliminations while playing in minors.
Bell’s departure takes the second highest salary from the Pittsburgh books, just behind right fielder Gregory Polanco, who paid $ 11.6 million. Cherington, however, noted that the Pirates probably did not close the deal.
“To build a winning team and sustain it in Pittsburgh, we will need to continue to focus on accumulating talent and then on developing that talent, and that comes from all different ways,” said Cherington. “But commerce is one of them, and this is the time of year when these conversations take place, so let’s continue with them.”
Cherington hopes there will be a reaction from a fan base that has gotten used to seeing its most famous players leave the city. The Pirates, however, would hardly sign a long-term deal with Bell. Combining that probability with the timeframe the club considers necessary to replicate the success that teams with modest budgets like Tampa Bay and Oakland achieved meant that Bell’s separation – however difficult it was – was the right decision.
“I believe what Pirates fans want is a winning team, more than rooting for a single player, even if they are a very good guy and a good player,” said Cherington. “If we think about it, this is how we see it”.