Amid the Nationals' deconstruction, Josh Bell has made a case for long-term renewal (2022)

WASHINGTON — As is often the case in this town for newcomers, one of Josh Bell’s best foodie tips came from a visitor.

“I was actually at first base when the Dodgers came to town (in May),” Bell said Sunday morning. “Mookie Betts hits a single. It’s a day game. He’s like, ‘Oh, I’m getting Oohhs and Aahhs tonight.’ I’m like, ‘What?’ He’s like, ‘You’ve never had it before? Man, they didn’t tell you?’ I was like, ‘Who’s going to tell me? What are you even talking about?’ He was like, ‘Dee (Strange-Gordon) should have told you.’ I was like, ‘Dee just got here, too.’ So, since then, I’ve gotten that three or four times, ’cause I’m from the south. I’m all for it. That’s one of my spots.”

Bell moved after spending 2021 living near Nationals Park, in the Navy Yard area, and sees a lot more of the city now. A lot of things around D.C. are still new to him as he and his wife and baby daughter have settled in. But what was once abstract — his future with the team, after the Nats acquired him from Pittsburgh just before Christmas 2020 — is now a red, blinking, dwindling countdown clock.

Bell is raking this season — fifth in the majors in on-base percentage (.398), sixth in hits (90), 10th in average (.317) and 12th in OPS (.902) entering play Sunday — on a pretty bad, last-place team. He’s doing much more than blasting; he ended Miami pitcher Pablo López’s no-hit bid Sunday, going the opposite way for a double in the seventh. Then, he crushed a 411-foot bomb from the right side of the plate off the Marlins’ Steven Okert in the eighth, which would have been the game winner but for Jesus Sánchez’s ninth-inning, two-out, two-strike, two-run homer off Tanner Rainey, in what became a 10-inning, 7-4 Miami win.

The Cardinals’ Paul Goldschmidt and the Mets’ Pete Alonso are NL All-Star locks at first base. After that? You can argue Freddie Freeman (.307/.391/.502 entering Sunday). I’ll argue Bell.

But, it’s now July. And Bell’s a free agent at the end of the season. The Nationals would be crazy not to think about trading him by the Aug. 2 deadline, to add a good, maybe very good, prospect or two to their organization. He’s by far the guy who’d bring back the most for Washington via deadline trade. Any AL contender worth its salt would love to have Bell in the middle of its lineup.

But … shouldn’t the Nationals consider trying to re-sign Bell, too?

“It’s a dream come true, coming here,” Bell said. “Davey (Martinez) and I talked last year about me wanting to play here for a long time. It’s one of those things where it’s kind of out of my hands. We’ll definitely see what happens. But I think the organization knows how pleased I am being here, with the city and all that, and with the community as a whole. I think this organization does pretty much everything right. So I’m definitely happy to throw on the Nationals jersey.”

It’s been almost a yearsince the Nationals hit the reset button and held their clearance sale, dealing Max Scherzer and Trea Turner and Kyle Schwarber and Daniel Hudson and Brad Hand and Yan Gomes and Josh Harrison at the 2021 trade deadline. And it was the right thing to do, even as 2022 has gone how we all expected. And while Juan Soto’s future will, and should, always be priority No. 1 for the Lerners and Mike Rizzo, Bell has earned consideration for a new deal here — just as he did before Pittsburgh, in a similar rebuild (retool,as Rizzo insists on calling his team’s version of it), traded him to D.C.

“You get used to it over time,” Bell said. “It’s going on six, seven years for me. Being a part of discussions, I’ve lost friends before; I’ve gained friends, through trades. I’ve had opportunities come and go with trades. I think the most important thing is just focusing on the game, focusing on the controllables. If I can do that, I think I’m going to be in a good place.

“I feel like with this game, with the storylines and clickbait, there’s always going to be something that someone can post or write about anything. Unless it’s set in stone, I’m focusing on the here and now.”

Those words are, of course, music to Martinez’s ears. No one denies the presence of yesterday or tomorrow more than the Nats’ manager. But Rizzo and ownership have to think about the future.

Almost anyone on an expiring contract as the month begins won’t be here when it ends. Nelson Cruz, certainly, will be gone. So, likely, will be Maikel Franco, and maybe César Hernández and Yadiel Hernandez and Steve Cishek, and possibly Kyle Finnegan and/or Rainey. It’s what sellers do. Last year’s trade frenzy helped start to restock the minors, but the work is certainly not done, not that it’s ever done.

The Nationals have exactly two players — Brady House (ranked 39th) and Cade Cavalli (43rd) — among MLB.com’s top 100 prospects. Cavalli (74th), Cole Henry (82nd) and House (98th) were the only three Nats in FanGraph’s top 100 prospects at the start of the season, though right-hander Jackson Rutledge and outfielder Yasel Antuna are certainly part of the future, too. Much of the bounty from last year’s trades is already up here, sprouts amid the weeds.

Every time Keibert Ruiz guns down an opposing base stealer, as he did Sunday to Miami’s Jon Berti, who’s leading the majors in steals, or picks off an opposing runner off first — with Bell’s assistance — it’s a glimpse into a possible winning future. Josiah Gray looks, every fifth day, more and more like someone who could be a top half of the rotation guy. Lane Thomas, acquired from St. Louis for Jon Lester, has been a constant in left or center. Reliever Mason Thompson, who came from San Diego for Hudson, was quite shaky last year. But he’s back up this season after a stint on the 60-day IL to rehab a biceps injury, and he has looked very good in his first two 2022 appearances.

And shortstop Luis García, the Nats’ top prospect before coming up last season, may be a constant adventure in the field, but he’s earning his keep at the plate. (It’s anathema to suggest around the Nats that, maybe, García’s MLB future is at second. But … maybe his MLB future is at second.)

Trading Bell or letting him walk in free agency creates a gaping hole at yet another position. There’s no one in the pipeline who’d be ready at first anytime soon. The Nationals, picking fifth in this month’s MLB draft, have been linked to Georgia Tech catcher Kevin Parada, with the idea that he could potentially move, likely to first, in the majors. But that would be a ways off.

The Nats already are likely going to be in the third base market this winter, could use another starting arm and are iffy at shortstop/leadoff (see above and, yes, Turner is a free agent this winter; why do you ask?). In an ideal world, they’d look to upgrade in left, too. They can’t address all those positions this winter as it is; adding another corner infield spot to the list would make an already arduous task — showing significant improvement in 2023, which is the last real chance they’ll have to convince Soto to stick around before he hits free agency after the 2024 season — nearly impossible.

And this is where you mention that Bell has been pretty doggone productive the first half of this season, even as Soto has been decidedly un-Soto like at the plate just ahead of him.

“For me, personally, right now, Josh Bell bats third,” Martinez said. “I look at it like that every day until something else happens. For him, he’s been unbelievable. And I know he loves it here. He tries to put everything behind him. He’s really good about being where his feet are. I talk about that with him all the time. You can’t control what happens in this game, but you can control what you do. And he’s been amazing at that.”

Full disclosure: I wanted the Nats to re-sign Adam Dunn when he was in the process of hitting 38 bombs in his walk season of 2010, along similar lines: that fans who had to otherwise watch pretty lousy baseball deserved to at least be able to see the then-30-year-old Big Donkey eat every couple of days. And that was really, really bad advice. Dunn signed with the White Sox for four years and $56 million that winter, and while he made one All-Star team in 2012, his average, slugging and OPS fell off a cliff once he left town.

Bell, who turns 30 next month, is slightly more athletic than Dunn, though. He’s never going to be a great defensive first baseman, but he’s turned a lot of errant throws into outs this season, and had his moments with the glove, including Sunday. The odds of him aging into his 30s more smoothly than Dunn are higher.

ARE YOU SERIOUS, JOSH BELL?@JBell_19 // #NATITUDE pic.twitter.com/q3jhdDXM3c

— Washington Nationals (@Nationals) July 3, 2022

This matters, too: Bell, Gray and reliever Carl Edwards Jr. are Washington’s lone Black players on the active roster. (Pitcher Joe Ross is out for the season; a partial tear of his ulnar collateral ligament last season hasn’t healed as hoped, and he had a bone spur removed just before the start of spring training.) Now, D.C.’s “Chocolate City” days are in the rearview mirror; gentrification comes for almost all big cities, and this one’s no different. But there’s still a substantial and historic Black population here. (Sunday was HBCU/Divine 9 Day at Nats Park.) A lot of Black people come to Nats games. Baseball matters to them. And it also matters to them — as it does, to be sure, with all fans of the local nine — that Bell is here, playing well.

The fact that Howie Kendrick hit the Nats’ two most consequential home runs in franchise history matters. The fact that Devante Smith-Pelly was front and center in the Caps’ Stanley Cup championship run matters. That should not guide management’s decision on Bell. It should not be dismissed out of hand, either.

“I know that question carries a lot of weight,” Bell said. “In 2020, I read ‘Between The World and Me.’ And I remember reading that D.C. was the mecca, and Howard (University) was the mecca. I’d only experienced D.C. in a weekend series. And I got sent down from here (in 2016), so I had a bad taste in my mouth about D.C.

“I ended up getting traded. And being here now, you walk down the street, you see people that look like you. You see people that don’t look like you. You see and hear different languages, different cultures. It’s a melting pot. And I think about where I want to raise kids, the community that I want to raise my kids in. This is it, for me. That’s what I think about when I think about D.C. I know there’s responsibilities for my name kind of being put on a pedestal. I’ll take that with open arms and try to lead the way.”

The Nationals wouldn’t be wrong to max out Bell’s worth by trading him. But there’s another path with down-the-road dividends that should be in play, too.

(Top photo: Tim Heitman / USA Today)

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