On Tuesday afternoon, news broke that free agent first baseman Josh Bell and the Cleveland Guardians came to an agreement on a two-year, $33 million deal. The deal is interesting since Bell has the ability to opt out of his contract after the first year. That means if Bell has a stellar season, he can reset his market and, in turn, make more money. It also means that the Guardians can extend Bell a qualifying offer as well and if Bell goes elsewhere, get a draft pick for their troubles. It’s a fairly unique deal for any team, Cleveland included, and has the ability to become a possible low-risk, high-reward contract long-term. It also gives the club the luxury of time as players like Gabriel Arias and Jhonkensy Noel continue to grow and develop while waiting in the wings for their chance.
While it’s hard to forecast what exactly will happen, the Guardians agreeing to terms with Bell is significant for a few reasons. First off, it’s the priciest deal Cleveland has signed a free agent to since they signed Edwin Encarnacion to a three-year, $60 million deal in January 2017. So, the fact that the organization is willing to spend on a position of need to bolster a young, up-and-coming Guardians team’s rotation is encouraging if you’re a fan. But, more than anything, what’s best about Cleveland signing Bell is the fact that the 30-year-old fits almost seamlessly into what the Guardians are building at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.
The addition of Bell, assuming of course that he passes his physical, fills a need that became more apparent when Franmil Reyes struggled last season and was designated for assignment. Sure, the switch-hitting Bell is mostly a first baseman, but he can DH and has played left and right field. That versatility as a slugger will be more than helpful for the Guardians as a switch-hitter that fits Cleveland’s philosophy of prioritizing contact well and the fact that he’s able to perform well against left-handed pitchers is just icing on the cake.
A lineup that features Steven Kwan, José Ramírez, Josh Naylor and Bell already ranks somewhere in the top five in terms of hitting and promises to make things tough on opposing pitchers. But, when considering how well Bell compliments Naylor more than anything, the signing becomes even more impactful. Naylor, who is also a first baseman, is a left-handed hitter who struggled at times last season on a surgically-repaired right ankle. Bell and Naylor can platoon at first with Bell as a designated hitter when Naylor plays first. Guardians manager Terry Francona said Tuesday that Naylor might even play some outfield in 2023, providing his ankle is sound and he drops some weight. But, having Bell in Cleveland makes it easier in the event Naylor is still not 100% physically – regardless of whether it’s his ankle or his current weight.
Furthermore, Bell also gives the Guardians a proper middle-of-the-order bat to compliment Naylor as well. Sure, Bell’s splits are fairly conventional and in his career, he’s hit .269 with 93 homers and 340 RBI against right-handers and .244 with 37 homers and 129 against lefties. But, last season, when he played for Washington and San Diego, he hit .262 with 10 homers and 39 RBI against righties and .276 with seven homers and 32 RBI against lefties. That should help balance things out whenever Naylor becomes erratic at the plate. Last season, Naylor hit .283 with 19 homers and 68 RBI against righties and .173 with one homer and 11 RBI against lefties. In his career, Naylor is a .267 hitter against righties and a .209 hitter against lefties.
Adding Bell should also allow Francona to get creative utilizing his switch-hitting superstar in Ramirez as well. Again, Bell is a switch-hitter like Ramirez. Also like Ramirez, Bell hits it with power at the plate, which is something the Guardians needed more of last season. Last season, Bell hit 17 homeruns all while drawing 81 walks and striking out 102 times. Bell has hit 130 homers and has an on-base percentage of .351 overall in his career as well.
Francona stressed on Tuesday evening amidst the MLB’s winter meetings that Cleveland is taking an overall patient and pragmatic approach to this offseason. It became clear this was the right way to go about things when they signed Bell after fans saw Anthony Rizzo and José Abreu sign elsewhere. The Guardians were still able to get their guy and a marquee name in Bell and now can shift their focus to addressing the need for a catcher while Bo Naylor, the younger brother of Josh Naylor, continues to grow and develop.
Sean Murphy, Alejandro Kirk, Danny Jansen and others have been discussed as options at catcher on the trade front for Cleveland. If the asking price is too much, there are also free agents like Christian Vazquez or even a familiar face in Austin Hedges. Clearly, there are options out there for the Guardians but as they did with Bell, they’ll remain pragmatic and not put all their eggs in one basket. There will be someone behind home plate on Opening Day catching for Cleveland – it’s just uncertain right now who that will be.
But, when it comes to bolstering this young squad, the Guardians are doing it the right way and building a contender by being patient. If they continue this approach heading into Spring Training, all while grabbing disgruntled Pirates star Bryan Reynolds, then Cleveland will be cooking with grease all over the field.
Evan Dammarell is a sports journalist covering all things Cleveland right off the shores of Lake Erie. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. You can also email him at [email protected] He can also be found three to five times a week on Locked On Cavs, a part of the Locked On Podcast Network.
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