In the priciest free agent deal since they signed Edwin Encarnación in December of 2016, the Cleveland Guardians have agreed to terms on a two-year, $33 million deal with free agent, switch-hitting first baseman Josh Bell. Hallelujah, Christmas came early, and we can all get our various “bell”, “ring,” “ding”, and “dong” puns ready.
As I mentioned last week, Josh Bell was the top free agent first baseman remaining following Anthony Rizzo and José Abreu’s respective signings — kudos to the Dolans, Chris Antonetti, Mike Chernoff, and the rest of the Cleveland front office for getting their man.
Coming into the offseason, MLB Trade Rumors projected Bell to get four years and $64 million, and FanGraphs’ crowdsource projection had him at three years and $43 million. Bell beat both of those projections in average annual value, but it comes as a bit of a surprise that his guaranteed years came to only two. At barely 30 years old, it’s possible Bell is betting on himself to come through with another strong season in 2023 that will propel him to a longer deal if he opts out. In any case, the Guardians and their fans would be thrilled to have him put up that kind of season in a Cleveland uniform, simultaneously allowing them to get a better read on what kind of right-handed slugging young players like Gabriel Arias and Jhonkensy Noel can provide if Bell does, indeed, opt-out.
The Guardians needed to find a slugger to help their lineup, especially against LHP where they ranked 27th in wRC+ in 2022. While Bell’s overall career numbers are only 105 wRC+ against lefties, in 2021-2022 he put up 120 wRC+ vs. southpaws, adjusting his career K/BB% of 21.3/9.5 to 13.2/13.9 K/BB% against LHP during that time period. The Guardians appear to be banking on the effectiveness of this increase in patience. Overall, Bell’s career 18.2/11.9 K/BB% as a switch-hitter fits the Guardians’ philosophy of prioritizing contact well and provides the hope that as he enters his 30s, he will have a solid skill of plate discipline to buoy his value. A lineup that features Steven Kwan, José Ramírez, Josh Naylor, and Josh Bell somewhere in their top five hitters promises to make things tough on opposing pitchers, much to the delight of the Cleveland baseball faithful.
Some have speculated that Bell’s putting up only a 79 wRC+ with the Padres following his trade last August may have hurt his market. For his career, Bell has a .282 BABIP, and coming into the day he was traded, his BABIP was .324 in 2023, but he put up only a .233 BABIP in his time in San Diego. So, it was just a bad luck stretch, right? Well, luck certainly played a role, but Bell also saw his hard-hit rate sink to 26.5% in San Diego from 30.9% with Washington in April-July, and his pull rate went down from 40% to 34.6%. However, his walk rate went up from 11% to 15% (his strikeout rate also rose from 14% to 19%), so he was still seeing the ball well. Looking at the numbers and watching clips, I feel very comfortable describing his 210 plate appearances in San Diego as just one of those dips that happen in any player’s season, nothing particularly concerning for the future.
Since we’re looking at a small sample size here, it’s worth mentioning that Bell put up a 102 wRC+ in the postseason including a couple of home runs for San Diego. I doubt his Padres performance had much of an effect on his market; I would personally conclude that after the Astros paid handsomely for José Abreu, the market for three-year deals for 1B/DH players probably normalized without any large markets particularly interested in Bell and Cleveland took advantage. I would expect that the plan will be for Josh Bell to play first base (where he is a below-average defender) against left-handed pitching while Josh Naylor mostly remains in reserve, and then for Bell to DH against RHP (against whom Bell has a career 120 wRC+).
Bell has a reputation as a great clubhouse presence and I encourage Cleveland fans to do some Googling to find plenty of videos and articles of Bell being an all-around decent chap, with a love for reading (he is just like me for real) that began with a children’s book I’m about to put in my Amazon cart.
Last year, Owen Miller hit six home runs and put up an 85 wRC+ in 479 plate appearances for the Guardians, playing most of his time in the 1B/DH role. For 2023, the Guardians have now substituted a player in that spot who is projected for 22 home runs in 611 plate appearances and a 123 wRC+.
Rejoice, Cleveland, ring Christmas Bells tonight — the Guardians have taken the first step in committing to making a real run in 2023.