Josh Bell Traded to the Washington Nationals

The Pittsburgh Pirates have traded first baseman Josh Bell to the Washington Nationals for prospects Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean, both right-handed pitchers and both among the top six prospects for the Nationals according to MLB Pipeline. Baseball America has Yeah eighth in the system and Crowe ranked tenth in the system, though I’ll point out that they have updated their rankings and Pipeline hasn’t yet for the 2021 season. We will have more on this breaking news shortly.

Wil Crowe debuted in the majors in 2020, making three starts for the Nationals in which he gave up 13 runs in 8.1 innings, with eight walks, eight strikeouts and five homers. He split the 2019 season between Double-A and Triple-A, posting a combined 4.70 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, and a 130:48 SO/BB ratio in 149.1 innings. From Pipeline he gets at least average grades on all four of his pitches (FB/SL/CV/CH) with slightly above marks on the fastball, changeup and his control. He turned 26 back in September, so he’s not a young prospect.

Yean is just 19 years old and he hasn’t reached full-season ball yet.  He spent most of 2019 in the GCL, making his final two starts in the New York-Penn League to finish the season. He has a 4.70 ERA and a 1.49 WHIP, with a 75:40 SO/BB ratio in 90 innings as a pro. Yean has three above average pitches, with a 60 grade fastball, according to Pipeline. He was signed for $100,000 in 2017. He was touching 97 MPH with his fastball in late 2019 at 18 years old, showing some nice improvements over previous results. BA also gives him a 60 grade for the fastball and they note that he has filled out his 6’1″ frame tremendously since signing, adding 50 pounds over 3 1/2 years. They also note that he impressed in instructional league ball.

The Pirates are trading away two years of Josh Bell,  who had a rough season in 2020 with a .669 OPS. In his five years with the Pirates, he has accumulated just 2.6 WAR, mostly due to poor defense, which has resulted in -7.0 WAR over the years. However, the 2020 season was the first one in which his offense was also below replacement level.

Pirates GM Ben Cherington had this quote for the media:

“Wil Crowe commands a solid fastball and several good secondary pitches. He brings a strong reputation and work ethic, and has a chance to compete for Major League innings in 2021,” said Cherington. “Eddy Yean is a Dominican League prospect who was one of the better young pitchers in the short season in 2019. He has a mid-90’s fastball to go along with a promising slider and changeup. Yean will join a growing group of promising starting pitching prospects within our minor league system.”

We’ll update shortly with some thoughts on the trade.

UPDATE 2:51 PM: Analysis from Tim Williams…

I don’t think we’ve seen the best from Josh Bell.

Like most Pirates prospects over the last decade, Bell has disappointed in his time in the majors. Yet, there’s still hope that he can put it all together, due to his plus raw power and plus contact potential from both sides, which has shown up from time to time.

The Pirates weren’t able to get Bell to the next level in Ben Cherington’s first season running the organization, although it was a weird season. They could have kept him and attempted to increase his value with a strong first half in 2021. The downside is that a bad first half leaves him with no value.

The Nationals obviously felt strong enough about Bell’s potential value to trade two of their top ten prospects in the system. With the way the trade breaks down, the value lines up pretty even for the needs of both sides.

Bell only has two years of control remaining, meaning the Pirates were running out of time to get value for him. In the end, the only value he was going to give them was via trade, as his on-field production means little for a franchise in a rebuilding mode. They could trade him now for this value, or keep him and hope the value went up. Either way, this story was going to end with them trying to get some return for Bell via trade.

What was that return? Wil Crowe looks like a guy who could emerge as a starting option for the Pirates the next few years. I doubt the Pirates are getting a lot of value from him, but they could get a serviceable starter or bullpen option for a few seasons, and Crowe could be on the team when they’ve got their next chance at contending.

Bell has been about replacement level, with not much room for upside unless he has an unlikely breakout. Crowe doesn’t project to perform much above replacement level, and doesn’t have the lofty ceiling that Bell has.

The ceiling comes in with Eddy Yean, who seems to be surging with his prospect value lately. His velocity has been increasing to the 96-97 range more consistently over the last two years. He joins a promising group of pitching prospects in the lower levels who could be more than just a fifth starter.

If the Pirates kept Bell, their hope would have been fixing his swing and extracting more value for him by the trade deadline in 2021, or getting some kind of return for his final season this time next year. We’ll never know if they would have gotten the same, better, or worse value by waiting.

What we do know is that now their hope is developing Crowe and Yean, with the big hope of the trade being placed on Yean’s young shoulders. At the least, I think the Pirates will emerge with a solid reliever from this deal, which would give them about the same value they were getting from Bell, just with less name appeal. At best, the Pirates have a 5th starter/reliever in Crowe and a hard-throwing, middle of the rotation or better starting option in Yean to join the next contending team.

In either case, the Pirates need to improve from where they’re at right now. It appears they’re banking on improving prospects here, rather than trying to improve Bell’s swing to get better prospects.