August 13, 2022

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Bell boosts trade value, picks up Nats with big home run

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WASHINGTON — The Nationals magnified the value of expiring contracts last July after they flipped veterans in the final year of their deals for prospects in multiple Trade Deadline acquisitions. 

So when first baseman Josh Bell entered 2022 with free agency on the horizon at the end of the season, he became an instant trade candidate. 

When he posted career-best numbers, his value was bolstered.

And when he crushed a go-ahead three-run homer in the seventh inning of Saturday’s 7-6 win over the Cardinals at Nationals Park, his ability to come through in a big moment shone even brighter.

“He’s been an unbelievable asset,” manager Dave Martinez said. “I love the guy. He’s a great teammate, he’s a great guy in that clubhouse and he brings it every day.”

The same day Bell played hero against the Cardinals, MLB Network’s Jon Heyman reported the American League West-leading Astros were interested in the 29-year-old switch-hitter since Houston’s starting first baseman, Yuli Gurriel, is batting .240 with a .681 OPS.

Given that Bell is on an expiring contract, it would be unlikely for a team to part ways with its top prospect in return — Astros Triple-A right-hander Hunter Brown is ranked No. 81 overall by MLB Pipeline. But as an example from 2021, the Nationals acquired Mason Thompson and Jordy Barley (their No. 27 prospect) from the Padres for Daniel Hudson, as well as Riley Adams from the Blue Jays for Brad Hand.

Bell, meanwhile, played the first five seasons of his career in Pittsburgh before being traded to Washington on Christmas Eve of 2020. While he has not experienced a midseason move himself, he learned lessons from former teammates on how to approach the potential change.

“If you’re focused on things you can’t control, you lose focus on the game,” Bell said Friday. “At the end of the day, baseball’s the most important thing. So if I can focus on baseball and what’s going on here and now tonight, I’ll be in a good place.”

Bell is slashing .305/.389/.499 with an .888 OPS in his seventh season. He entered Saturday tied for second in the National League in multi-hit games, fourth in batting average and on-base percentage, fifth in weighted on-base average (wOBA), sixth in hits and OPS, seventh in strikeout percentage and ninth in weighted runs created plus (wRC+). He is batting .287 against left-handers and .316 against righties.

“His big thing is not trying to do too much, and he’s just trying to put the ball in play,” Martinez said. “He’s got power — we know that — in all fields. He’s done incredible for us. It doesn’t matter where I hit him; he just goes up there and tries to not chase and get the ball where he thinks he can hit it and put some good swings on it.”

After platooning first base with Ryan Zimmerman last year, Bell has thrived and been reliable in the everyday role. He has appeared in all but one of the Nationals’ games this season, crediting a disciplined routine and workout plan.

“We always talk about his hitting,” said Martinez. “But as I’ve always said, he’s gotten so much better at first base, he really has.”

Defensively, the 6-foot-4, 261-pound Bell has been making acrobatic diving plays throughout the season to a .989 fielding percentage (tenth among qualified NL first basemen entering Saturday).

“I feel like just being out there for the guys playing every day is big,” Bell said. “The durability is big for me, and I love the opportunity to pick my teammates up on defense.

“Getting picks in big scenarios and picking guys up when they need it: it’s why I play the game.”

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