Trading Bell Was the Right Move, Even if You Can’t See it Now

The Pirates did the right thing trading Josh Bell to the Washington Nationals, and I know it hurts some of you, hey, I really liked the guy too. That said, the Pirates have a ton of decisions like this that must be made. They don’t all have to end in a trade, but they all have to end in a definitive direction.

I don’t mean they have to pour over the entire roster just because, no this is more about the stage of career a large swath of players find themselves in. Running low on control.

I’ve called this version of the Pittsburgh Pirates a failed rebuild and I use that definition lightly, because Neal Huntington was more so trying to remain in the competitive world. He failed. There could have been paths taken or deals not made that could have potentially made today’s product more passible but it still wouldn’t be a winner.

I promised I’d try to explain why this was the right move, why it was necessary, and at the same time try to describe what makes the return fair. I’ll give it my best shot, but keep in mind there are no guarantees. My car is supposed to start every morning but if one little thing goes wrong it won’t. That’s where I come in with money to fix the issue and keep the plan moving. This is also where things tend to fall apart for the Pirates.

Let’s Be Honest About Josh Bell

First things first, let’s be honest about what Josh Bell was here. He was the only legitimate power threat on a team utterly devoid of power. Problem is, he wasn’t nearly consistent enough to build around. Your most inconsistent player can’t also be your best.

He has two years of control left and the Nationals probably won’t re-sign him either, in fact I wouldn’t rule out the Nationals moving him themselves before his time there has expired. He’s not expensive, not even for the Pirates and if he doesn’t start finding a way to avoid month long plunges to below replacement level he never will be.

I’ve seen people want to build around Josh, but in reality, if you want to win one day, awful idea. If you give him 550 at bats in the middle of your order you better have solid bats on either side of him that can help smooth over the peaks and valleys of day to day Bell.

Let’s be clear, this is not a centerpiece player for any club that considers themselves a competitor. Even less so for a team that knows beyond a shadow of doubt he won’t be here when they are.

Josh loved it here in Pittsburgh and I do believe if they wanted to they could have gotten past his agent to put together an extension but we’d be talking about maybe a five year deal that ate his last two seasons of arbitration and tacked on 3 years. Even that would have been a departure for Boras who loves to take his guys to free agency or at least get them there in their very early 30’s, but based on interviews with Mr. Boras its easy to see he too saw that Bell wasn’t going to net that monster deal. In other words, what Boras likes to do with ‘his’ guys, doesn’t apply equally when he knows they don’t reach the level required to demand it.

At the end of the day there is May 2019 and everything else Bell has done at the plate and I haven’t even touched his defense.

Just be honest about the player. Take the jersey out of your closet, look at the back then flip it around and look at what’s important, the logo. This was not their best player, although it wouldn’t matter if he was.

The Return Was…OK

We talked about all the factors. The Nationals system is at least as far as rating sites go, the weakest in MLB ranking number 30 out of 30. So two top tens from that system isn’t the same as say, well, any other team.

The rankings are based on the entirety of the system and the Nationals lack the depth that is required to rank highly, they also lack talent in any position aside from the mound. This makes sense because the Nationals have poured money into their pitching staff at the MLB level, so of course that would be one area where they aren’t forcing prospects to make jumps they aren’t ready to take, at least in a normal, non-COVID season.

Both players slot into the Pirates top 20 immediately which tells you almost as much about the Pirates system as it does the Nationals.

The Plan

It’s simple to state, harder to execute. If it were easy the league would have a whole lot more to point to than the Royals as an example of mission accomplished.

This team doesn’t have nearly enough prospect capital to envision success. You can focus on the obvious deficiencies like catching or left handed pitching but in reality it’s a numbers game. Let’s say that the Pirates expect all of their top 20 to be here and contributing by 2023. The likelihood that all 20 of those players make it is slim and doesn’t even add up to a complete team.

Now, Ben Cherington at least publicly is painting a picture that when he completes his phase one of reconstruction the system will have a glut of prospects climbing over top of each other to get to the show. Even then he expects holes and at that time Bob Nutting will allow him to spend money he is currently not spending.

Biggest problem, I don’t believe it. Mostly because I haven’t seen it. I saw a very good team in 2013-2015 that had a couple major holes that were left unfilled. Even that was talked about as an approach that would allow the club to continue to keep their eye on the future even as they were actively competing in the present. See the issue was, now never mattered, and that has to change.

Well, they never really accomplished either.

I can’t sit here and pretend I know any different, but I can say moves like this one show me that Ben Cherington is not going to pretend this team is a couple players away and he certainly isn’t entertaining that Bell was going to be part of it.

There will be more as Craig wrote earlier. These moves don’t mean everyone the club is moving has no value or can’t perform. It doesn’t even mean this club has nobody who could be part of the solution here, but the decisions are being forced by where a large chunk of them sit in their control. They can and maybe should extend a couple but most of them will be moved to bring in prospects. That’s just reality.

If they don’t find someone who wants to pay fair value for Joe Musgrove for instance, they could potentially decide he is worth having as a veteran on the club of the future. Extending him into (or through) the projected window might be a good play, but rest assured if they find a partner willing to ante up for him, he’s gone.

But the Team is Going to Stink in 2021

Yeah. Did you watch 2020? How about most of 2019? Yeah they’re going to stink and Josh Bell if he hit all season long like May of 2019 maybe makes them 10 games better and realistically gets himself traded by the deadline.

No team executive is going to come out and say “look, we don’t care about our record or your feelings next season” so I’ll do it for them. They don’t care about your feelings or their record. In fact it might be good to suck out loud again.

They may lose you, they may already have, but if the vision is true and the execution matches most of you will come back. If you don’t, you’ll be replaced as easily as Josh Bell will. Much the same, they won’t replace him or you in 2021, but if they do this right this will be little more than another reason to believe what writers and journalists like Craig and I have been telling you since Cherington was hired, this is a rebuild and not the half assed version we’ve seen for too many attempts.

Why Trade Bell At His Lowest Value?

Well, how do you know it’s his lowest value? To offset his decreased control by holding onto him the team would need him to really come out blazing and I mean really blazing because another good month bookended by the same ineptitude he’s displayed the majority of his career wouldn’t increase value, in fact it likely decreases.

Point is, it’s nowhere near a guarantee he adds value, in fact it’s a stretch to believe he adds at all.

Look at what the Pirates got for Starling Marte, then look at what the Diamondbacks got for Marte when they moved him to Florida. And Marte played well, he didn’t fall off a cliff, he just had almost a season less control and was moved to another club that has no chance of extending him. I won’t even rule out the Marlins flipping him again this season.

Sometimes you have to take the bird in hand method. This was one.

I Just Don’t Trust Nutting to Ever Spend and That’s All That Matters

There is a ton of truth there. He hasn’t spent on this club, at least not consistently. They have extended players to keep talent on the club but a big swing and miss like Polanco is akin to an anchor around their necks.

If you truly can’t see a way that Nutting opens the purse for Cherington when the team is close, who could tell you you’re wrong? That said, that’s the exact reason to root on Ben as he continues to revamp the system and restock the shelves because the more solutions he finds internally the less he’ll need to kick this thing over the edge when the window opens.

Prospects Aren’t Nothing

We traded Josh Bell for nothing just like Marte! No. Want major league talent in exchange, I’ll show you what that looks like, Cole for Moran, Martin, Feliz and Musgrove. That one trade actually helped build the clock this team is on for control, and those players tend to come with a defined ceiling. That’s not what you want when rebuilding, that’s what you get when you think you can find a way to return 4 mediocre players for one outstanding player.

Those moves have a place, look at what Boston got back for Mookie Betts. The difference is when the Red Sox want to extend Verdugo they can and will and their fans aren’t sitting around hoping he does well but not too well so they can afford him.

You can be mad that next year’s team isn’t as good but most baseball trades are built around the concept of time and potential, not direct drop in replacements.

In 1987 the Pirates traded All Star Catcher (and my personal favorite player) Tony Pena for Andy Van Slyke, catcher Mike LaValliere and pitcher Mike Dunne. I remember feeling they got nothing for our best player, the difference is as I adopted my new favorite player Mr. Van Slyke I absorbed the lesson that prospects will make an impact too.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

10 thoughts on “Trading Bell Was the Right Move, Even if You Can’t See it Now

  1. Wanting to place some hope in the Pirates, I will hope that Cherignton knows not only what is got himself into with Nutting but also what he needs to do to build a winning franchise. Trading Bell for prospects makes all the sense in the world, as long as the prospects turn out to be more valuable than Bell over the next 6-10 years. It will be interesting to learn from this and other examples if Cherington’s team is any better at pro scouting than Huntington’s group was. Maybe we can watch the new management build a winning team from the ground up. Of course, this means that all attention will be going back to the low minors, like it was a decade ago. Sigh.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Good article. I thought they would move Bell. He wasn’t to consistent In 2017 he hit 26 homer runs and then fell off in 18 with 12 and for the 1st half of 2019 he hit 27 and then fell off the 2nd half by only hitting 10 and then 2020 had his worst 60 games of his career.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. It seems these days like there are two groups of Pirate fans posting their remarks about this trade. The ones who understand that the Pirates are rebuilding and, as much as many don’t like it, the Pirates are going to be pretty lousy for the next few years while they’re doing it and those who unrealistically hope that the Pirates are going to try to be competitive more quickly and are going to make trades and sign free agents to improve the current team on the field right now. My eyes rolled back into my head yesterday when I read a fan say on twitter that they since the Pirates traded Bell for “nothing” that they better go out and at least sign a “big free agent.” These fans either aren’t paying attention or are in denial. Others post trade ideas in which the Pirates offer three of their mediocre players for another team’s above average or star player. Are you serious or are you baked? These fans put a value on the Pirates average to below average players more than any GM ever would. These dreamers need to accept the fact that more players are going to get traded for prospects that for now won’t satisfy these fans so they’ll whine and bitch about it and the Pirates will finish last in 2021 which may give them the first amateur draft pick in both ’20 and ’21. Remember what the Nationals did when they had the #1 pick in both 2009 and 2010? They drafted and signed Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper on back to back years. If some of these prospects pan out, and if the Pirates actually draft Kumar Rocker, and if Ke’Bryan Hayes develops into a star player, then Pirate fans may have a competitive team to root for in 2023-2024.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I had not thought about the 4 players received in the Cole trade as being part of the current “control” problem. Before this past season’s deadline I copied the spreadsheet at Cot’s Baseball Contracts (https://legacy.baseballprospectus.com/compensation/cots/) and considered “What would I do if I were GM?” with the 50 names listed there. Of course, Jason Martin was released, but not only was Josh Bell in the “Deal by ’21 deadline” category, but Moran, Musgrove, and Feliz were all in the “Consider dealing by ’21 deadline”. Even more reason that the Cole deal should have been for younger, higher ceiling prospects.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I think the problem isn’t necessarily this specific trade, per se. Rather, I think what has people so upset is what the trade represents — constant preparation for a future that we all suspect (know) will never come.

    Liked by 3 people

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