Is Josh Bell the next great Red Sox designated hitter?
As Chaim Bloom guides the Red Sox into the most pivotal offseason in a decade, the team has multiple roster holes to fill.
One currently empty position is designated hitter. After having David Ortiz and J.D. Martinez for the better part of the last 20 years, the Sox DH role has become synonymous with excellence. With Martinez entering free agency and the team showing no inclination that they want him back, they now find themselves with a gaping hole in the lineup. After missing out on top DH target Jose Abreu, the Red Sox should shift focus to Josh Bell to help fill the void at designated hitter.
Bell has spent his 7-year career between the Pirates, Nationals, and most recently a short stint with the Padres to end last season. He is a switch-hitting first baseman/DH who has also played 26 games in the outfield. Over his career, he has a .810 OPS with 130 career home runs. He also reduced his strikeout percentage in each of the last 3 seasons.
Let’s take a deeper dive into his 2022 season, which he split between the Nationals and Padres. In 103 games with the Nationals, he hit .301 with a .877 OPS and 14 home runs. Then, he was included in the blockbuster Juan Soto trade, so he played his final 53 regular-season games with the Padres. After the trade to the pitcher-friendly Petco Park, he only hit .192 with a .587 OPS and three home runs. Regardless, his overall season was productive enough for him to win his first Silver Slugger Award. He also took things up a notch in the playoffs, hitting .353 with a .941 OPS, a double, and a home run in five National League Championship Series games.
Bell’s dip in production in San Diego seems more like an anomaly than a trend. He’d be an instant upgrade for the Boston lineup, and his ability to hit from both sides of the plate would provide Alex Cora some flexibility to capitalize on pitching matchups. Bell has also shown the ability to hit to the opposite field whether he is batting left or right-handed, so it’s not hard to imagine him spraying the ball all over Fenway Park.
His ability to play first base would be an asset for the team as well. Historically, Bloom has gravitated toward versatile players, and Cora loves to get creative with the lineups. Though Bell will never turn heads with his defensive prowess (he has a career UZR of -24.6), he has shown the ability to stay on the field at first base, logging nearly 6,000 innings at the position over his 7-year career. His ability to play the field would allow Cora to give other players rest while keeping their bats in the lineup as DH.
Bell would also provide the Sox with some insurance. Like most fans, I am beyond excited about rookie first baseman Triston Casas’ potential, especially after his .766 OPS, 19 walks, and 5 home runs in 27 games late last season. However, the first full season of a rookie’s career is often an adjustment period, and many struggle to make the jump from Triple-A to the majors; Bobby Dalbec and Jarren Darren are two recent examples in Boston. Last summer, the Sox had to keep putting Dalbec on the field, as there were no other options before they acquired Eric Hosmer from the Padres at the deadline. Casas also dealt with injuries in 2022; he missed over a month of the Triple-A season with an ankle sprain and left the Dominican Winter League due to knee soreness. Unlike last season when there was no backup plan, the Red Sox would have Hosmer and/or Bell in case Casas struggles or can’t stay healthy.
The Sox do have multiple holes to fill while also trying to retain their homegrown talent (Devers and Bogaerts). MLBTradeRumors.com predicts Bell will command a 4-year, $64M contract (AAV $16M). However, he’s a Scott Boras, so that number could inflate depending on the market. However, if the Sox could get him at a lower AAV, they’d be able to spend more on other areas of need including improving the pitching staff, re-signing Xander Bogaerts, and extending Rafael Devers.
Interestingly, the Sox have shown interest in Bell before. Jim Bowden of The Athletic (subscription required) wrote that the Sox showed interest in acquiring Bell at the 2022 trade deadline, before he went to San Diego and the Padres sent Hosmer to Boston, instead. Bell also wasn’t eligible to receive a Qualifying Offer from the Padres, because he didn’t spend the entire season with them, so the Sox wouldn’t forfeit draft picks or international bonus pool money if they signed him.
Is Josh Bell the next Red Sox DH? Time will tell.