It doesn’t appear as though the Nationals have had any in-depth talks with Josh Bell about a long-term contract, as president of baseball operations Mike Rizzo told The Washington Post’s Jesse Dougherty (Twitter links) that Juan Soto is still the top focus for an extension. There have been more “discussions” with Soto, but until that situation is settled, any negotiations with Bell will seemingly have to wait.
Bell avoided arbitration by agreeing to a $10MM salary for 2022, his final season of arb eligibility. Since most players prefer to not talk contract during the season, the Nats might be left with a pretty limited window of time to work out a new deal with Bell, possibly just from the end of Washington’s season to the official start date of free agency. Furthermore, Bell is represented by the Boras Corporation, and it is rare to see Scott Boras clients agree to extensions so close to a trip to the open market.
Since Soto is under team control through 2024, Bell is technically the more pressing concern, and yet it is easy to understand why the Nationals are prioritizing a new Soto deal. It’s fair to guess that a Soto extension would be the single largest contract in baseball history, as Soto (also a Boras client) has already turned down a 13-year, $350MM offer from the Nats earlier this winter. Soto is still only 23 years old and already has a phenomenal track record of success, so it isn’t hard to imagine Boras wanting to set new contractual benchmarks for both total value and average annual value.
Bell, meanwhile, had a strong performance in his own right during his first season in D.C. The first baseman was one of many Nationals players sidelined by a COVID-19 outbreak in April, but after a slow start, Bell caught fire over the last four months and finished with 27 home runs and a .261/.347/.476 slash line over 568 plate appearances.
Should Bell repeat this performance in 2022, it’ll line him up for a nice multi-year pact in free agency. Bell turns 30 in August and he is somewhat limited as a primary first baseman, though he did line up in both corner outfield positions on occasion last season. With the universal DH now in place, Boras can now fully market Bell to National League teams that might have previously been unsure about his fielding future — as well, defensive metrics indicated that Bell’s 2021 glovework was the best of his career.
Whether Bell’s future is in Washington or not remains to be seen, depending on the state of the Nats’ minor rebuild. There is obvious benefit to retaining Soto as the face of the franchise, but locking Bell up to an extension or re-signing him in free agency would be a clear sign that the Nationals plan to contend again sooner rather than later. Such a move would also undoubtedly factor into Soto’s decision process, as Soto has been clear that he wants to play for a winning team. Plus, if an extension with Soto doesn’t become a reality, the Nats might adopt a win-now approach to capitalize on Soto’s prime years while they still have him.
Considering that D.C. has topped the $200MM payroll mark as recently as 2019, the team does have the resources to extend both Soto and Bell. Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin take up an outsized chunk of future payroll, but they are also the only Nationals players guaranteed money beyond the 2022 season.