Nationals first baseman Josh Bell is among the likeliest trade candidates on the market, and the Astros are among the teams interested in adding the slugger to their lineup, SNY’s Andy Martino tweets. The Mets are also said to have interest in Bell, who figures to appeal to just about any team in need of an offensive upgrade.
The 29-year-old Bell (30 next month) has been a force in Washington’s lineup for the past two seasons, coming over from the Pirates in a trade that sent Wil Crowe and minor league righty Eddy Yean to Pittsburgh in return. After an awful first month in D.C. last season, the switch-hitting Bell picked up the pace and hasn’t really slowed down. Since May 1, 2021 — a span of 902 plate appearances — Bell is hitting .293/.376/.503 with 38 long balls, 43 doubles and four triples.
Bell achieves that production with a combination of strong plate discipline and far better bat-to-ball skills than one might expect from a burly 6’4″, 255-pound slugger. He’s walked at an impressive 11.2% clip over that stretch of 902 trips to the plate and struck out in just 15.2% of them (including just 13.5% this season). Bell makes consistently strong contact (45.5% hard-hit rate, 91.1 mph average exit velocity), and although he puts the ball on the ground more than is ideal for someone with his power (51.3% ground-ball rate), he’s adept at spraying line drives. Also, while only 28.2% of Bell’s batted balls during this run have been classified as fly-balls, more than one in five of those flies (20.5%) has left the yard.
Bell once graded as a poor defender at first base but has improved his ratings in recent years. Public metrics like Defensive Runs Saved (+3) and Outs Above Average (+1) feel he’s been a solid option at the position this season — a far cry from early in his career when he was turning in full-season marks of -7 and -8. That defensive improvement is surely key for the Astros, who would have to play Bell at first base with a good deal of frequency given the presence of Yordan Alvarez at designated hitter. Alvarez is capable of playing left field and may do so more often with Michael Brantley out indefinitely due to a shoulder injury, but if the team ends up back at full strength, either Alvarez or Brantley would require some extra reps in the DH slot.
That scenario would likely push Astros stalwart Yuli Gurriel into a part-time role, which may be a bitter pill for both Gurriel and the organization to swallow. However, the 38-year-old Gurriel hasn’t performed up to his previous standards, hitting at a .235/.286/.386 clip through 329 plate appearances. He’s still making loads of contact (13.4% strikeout rate), but his walk rate, power output and batted-ball quality have all declined. Gurriel is popping the ball up to the infield at a higher rate than ever before and is sporting a career-low 17.9% line-drive rate. A Gold Glove winner at first base just last season, Gurriel has also posted negative marks in both DRS (-2) and OAA (-5).
Gurriel is still hitting lefties at a respectable .258/.298/.443 clip (110 wRC+), and he’s a fixture in the Houston clubhouse, so it stands to reason that he’d stick on the roster and be relied upon in a part-time role even if the Astros were to acquire Bell or another first base upgrade. It’s also worth pointing out that Gurriel has shown some signs of life after an awful run in April and May; dating back to June 1, he’s batted .255/.318/.418 in 154 plate appearances. That’s still a far cry from both his typical production and the numbers Bell has posted over the past couple seasons, however.
Bell is earning $10MM this season and will be a free agent at season’s end. The Astros’ $174MM payroll is down notably from last season’s franchise-record $188MM mark, and they’re more than $30MM shy of the new $230MM luxury-tax barrier. As such, there shouldn’t be any financial roadblocks to stand in the way of a deal if the two parties can agree on the young talent that would need to go back to Washington in return.