First Pitch: The First Baseman of the Future Probably Isn’t Playing First Base

The Pittsburgh Pirates have question marks at first base and right field entering the 2014 season. If you look through the farm system for long-term answers in right field, you don’t have to go far to find the right-fielder of the future.

His name is Gregory Polanco, and he should arrive in mid-2014.

If you go through the farm system looking for the first baseman of the future, you’re not going to find any leading candidates among the eligible first basemen. Matt Hague looks like a platoon player against lefties. Matt Curry has shown some power in the past, but has stalled at Double-A and just underwent hamate surgery last year. Stetson Allie has the most raw power in the system, but has horrible plate patience. Even Alex Dickerson, who was dealt in the off-season, didn’t look like the first baseman of the future. He was just the best of this group.

That’s not to say that the Pirates don’t have a future first baseman in their farm system. In the 2014 Prospect Guide, I listed the projected lineup in 2017. The projected first baseman in 2017 isn’t a first baseman right now.

Josh Bell talking with former Pirates first baseman and his 2013 West Virginia hitting coach, Orlando Merced.

Josh Bell talking with former Pirates first baseman and his 2013 West Virginia hitting coach, Orlando Merced.

His name is Josh Bell.

Bell is currently an outfielder, and was profiled today as the number eight prospect in the system. He displayed a bit of his hitting ability in 2013, with 37 doubles, 13 homers, and an .806 OPS. He’s got the potential to be a plus hitter with plus power. Even if he falls short of those projections, he could have a bat good enough to start at a corner position in the majors.

The Pirates have no need for him in the outfield. Once Polanco arrives in the majors, the outfield in Pittsburgh will be set through the 2018 season. Beyond that, Austin Meadows and Harold Ramirez are two of the many candidates who could eventually step in. Bell could also be a future replacement candidate, but he’s got the lowest defensive value of all of the top lower level outfield prospects. That, plus his power potential, makes him the best candidate to eventually move to first.

This doesn’t mean Bell should move to first base in 2014. I’ve seen a lot of people suggesting that. The problem with that idea is that we’re still talking about Bell’s potential with the bat. He’s still developing his hitting skills, which is totally natural for a 21-year-old entering his third season in pro-ball. If Bell moved to first base right now, he would have to spend a lot of time focusing on learning a new position. That takes time away from his focus on turning his hitting skills into production at the plate. Moving Bell to first base in the short-term is putting the cart before the horse. If his hitting isn’t developed, it doesn’t matter where he plays.

Once Bell’s hitting does develop, then he would be a candidate to move to first base. That could be in the second half of 2014. It could be in 2015. I don’t know the exact time, but I do know the exact timeframe: when we can accurately project an ETA to the majors for Bell. At this point it’s hard to say when Bell could arrive. It all depends on how he hits in 2014, and how he handles the eventual jump to Altoona. Maybe he explodes out of the gate in 2014, and is ready for the majors by mid-2015. Maybe he takes a little longer and isn’t ready until 2016-17. Once Bell starts hitting to his potential, he will move quickly through the system. When that happens, it will make sense to move him to first base, to get him in the majors as quickly as possible.

But moving Bell to first base now to fill the long-term need? That doesn’t make sense. To fill the long-term first base position, Bell needs his bat developed. That’s the number one priority, and that should be his sole focus before focusing on a new position and where he will eventually play in the majors.

Links and Notes

**The 2014 Prospect Guide is now available. You can purchase your copy here, and read about every prospect in the Pirates’ system. The book includes our top 50 prospects, as well as future potential ratings for every player.

**We have been releasing our top 20 prospects for the 2014 season, and this week we started the top 10. Today the countdown resumed with #8 – Josh Bell.

**The Yankees signed Masahiro Tanaka for $155 M today. That’s pretty much triple what guys like Yu Darvish and Daisuke Matsuzaka received, before MLB changed the signing process out of Japan. That reminded me of another change, and led me to create this:

TanakaBell

It’s not that I’m against Tanaka being paid $155 M. It’s that MLB overhauled the draft because the spending was considered out of control after the Josh Bell year. Meanwhile, Tanaka hasn’t thrown a pitch in the majors, no one really knows how good he will be, and he’s being paid like one of the top players in the game. There’s a chance Tanaka could be a huge addition for the Yankees. There’s also a chance he could be a huge waste of money. They’re taking that risk for the high reward. On the flip side, there’s a risk that the Pirates could waste their money with big draft spending (although only a fraction of what Tanaka is getting). There’s also a big reward if the draft spending works out. Yet MLB doesn’t allow the Pirates to take this kind of risk, therefore limiting the potential upside of the draft.

If you’re wondering about a central theme, it’s NOT that it benefits the Yankees. It does, but that’s not why MLB made the two rule changes above. Those changes keep more money with the players and owners. The Japanese teams and the amateur players in the draft are not represented by MLB nor the MLBPA. Both rule changes took money away from those groups, and kept more money with MLB/MLBPA. That’s pretty much the theme of all moves in baseball, with no concern to how fair the move is for the league.

**Gregory Polanco and Austin Meadows Among Top Ten Outfield Prospects. The MLB.com top 100 will come out tomorrow.

**Your Latest “Gregory Polanco is Really Good” Update. A video and a GIF displaying his power and speed.

**Winter Leagues: Polanco Goes Yard In Defeat.

**Pirates Sign Catcher Mitch Slauter. It’s a minor league deal, and he should serve as catching depth in the lower levels of the system.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • Patrick Kelly

    I think it is pretty spot on that Bell will eventually be moved to 1B. No need to rush him there now.

    One guy that I think gets overlooked a lot, whom I believe has a ton of upside, is Jose Osuna. He didn’t have a great season last year, but his BB’s were ok and his K rate was good. BABIP was pretty low, so I would expect to see his OPS numbers go up as the BABIP number edges closer to .300.

    • Mr. Goodkat

      Red Sox signed Grady Sizemore…

      If he looks good in camp, I’d revisit the Mike Carp talk. I’m sure they COULD keep them both on the bench, but he would be the first to get DFA’d in the case of a roster crunch.

      Trade value should decrease accordingly, one would think.

  • dcproject

    Good stuff, Tim. I made a comment on the Gabby avoids arbitration article a few days ago wondering if there was a possibility of Bell being moved to first. Thanks for exploring the topic.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      I’ve written about this a few times (always buried in another article), but there have been a lot of comments on the subject the last few days so I decided to make it a solo article.

  • emjayinTN

    Tim: Many of us used it up making the comments about him moving to 1B yesterday when you posted him as the #8 Prospect. But, that has never stopped me from repeating if I think something is important. Keep one thing in mind – these kids are anxious to make any move that may get them to the Show quicker, and, IMO there is no time that is too soon to start the process. He can see the best OF in MLB ahead of him, and one or two others behind him, so I think he will be thrilled to get started at expanding his odds by being able to play 1B and OF.

    I agree that a full time move right now could be difficult for him, but working on fielding and throwing with the other 1B in ST, and then getting a game or two a week at 1B would get him enough experience at Hi A that he could improve his chances to move quicker through AA and AAA. The one thing for sure is that the Pirates have talent managers/scouts who can watch him field ground balls for 5 minutes and tell you whether the kid has what it takes to make the move. And, the younger he is when the move is made, the better chance for long term success.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      The only way Bell is going to move quickly through the upper levels is with his bat. Learning fielding earlier is not going to help. Any focus on first base is going to take away from his hitting. On paper, you can imagine that it’s easy to just do two things. You imagine the hitting to be constant no matter where a player plays, and a separate thing from the fielding. There have been many actual examples of players seeing a decline in their hitting because of their focus on defense, or their focus on a new position. They can’t separate the two. If they struggle defensively (which you usually do when starting a new position), they change their approach at the plate to make up for that. Bell’s hitting isn’t even polished, which means he doesn’t need to be worrying about anything else, and doesn’t need to be doing anything that could impact what he’s working on at the plate.

      Like I said in the article, if Bell doesn’t hit, then it doesn’t matter what position he is playing.

      • emjayinTN

        Tim: Some players have difficulty, but many others do not. That is why I think a gradual process will be fine, and the reaction of his coaches if he does have difficulties will be extremely important. Last year with Hansen – his bat was bad and his number of errors skyrocketed because he was taking his frustrations from not hitting out onto the field resulting in less than necessary concentration. They got that turned around and he is much better for the experience. Hitting is not easy and it is a constant issue with major league hitters – they will have slumps and they will have to know how best to cure that problem. But, I have to disagree that hitters change their approach at the plate based on adapting to a new position. Hitters get into bad habits and then have to realize that they have fallen into bad habits and look at some video, and get back into the batting cage doing soft toss or hitting off the Tee. The smarter hitters know when they are off from one AB to the next, and some lesser disciplined hitters have to have somebody call their attention to it.

        Frank Thomas referenced his hitting coach Walt Hriniak as being most influential to him – WH was a disciple of Charlie Lau – if you can, pull up the video from Lau called “The Art of Hitting .300″. It is dated, but, IMO, it is one of the best and most informative video’s ever on hitting, and gives an insight into what it takes to get there and then stay there.

        • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

          “Last year with Hansen – his bat was bad and his number of errors skyrocketed because he was taking his frustrations from not hitting out onto the field resulting in less than necessary concentration. They got that turned around and he is much better for the experience.”

          You have this reversed, actually. His fielding was impacting his hitting.

          Once again, this isn’t comparable to Bell. Hanson already had polished his hitting skills. He got off track, but it was easy for him to get back on track at the plate, because he had something to revert back to. That’s not the case with Bell right now.

  • Jeff

    It can’t be that hard learning 2 tasks in the minor leagues. Fielding practice in morning, hitting in the afternoon.
    Bell is not in school, what else to do during the season?

    • RonLoreski

      “Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical.” – Yogi Berra

    • Mr. Goodkat

      Agreed. I don’t think he needs to be playing at 1B yet in games, but it would be foolish IMO to not start the process now. It can be very gradual. Start with the basics during some free time.

      But look at Lambo’s current situation, and you can see exactly why waiting can be the wrong choice. Not only don’t we know if he can hit in the majors, but we don’t even know if he can FIELD the position they want him to play!

      Obviously, theres a middle ground as Tim refers to. You don’t have to start now, and you don’t have to wait until he’s knocking on the door of the majors. I just think it would be beneficial to stick to the first end of that spectrum.

  • jaygray007

    Marte could blow out a knee and meadows and ramirez could bust (probabilistically speaking, they probably WILL bust) and mccutchen won’t be here forever whether he’s traded in 2017 or leaves in FA in 2018.

    Bell could very well be a rightfielder for the bucs someday too because not too much crazy stuff has to happen. I’m just supporting the opinion that the 1b move shouldn’t happen yet.

    • Kozy21

      I don’t think Cutch will be traded or leave via FA. He’s not a Boras client, he’s an all around genuine person, and he loves the Burgh. I think he’s a franchise icon who will remain a Pirate throughout his career. Coonelly said they will hand out a $100MM contract eventually. I think it will be Cutch and I think he’ll sign the largest contract in Pirates history prior to reaching free agency. He’s the most beloved baseball player in the Burgh since Pops. Marte and Polanco could eventually both leave but I think Cutch and either Cole or Taillon will be players that the team builds around for the next 10+ years.

      • jaygray007

        it’d be nice, but i dunno if giving him, a 31 year old, the largest contract in Pirates histor prior to reaching free agency in 2018, would be a fantastic idea, especially with so many other options who COULD be on the cusp.

        if every prospect flames out (which might happen), and they can’t fill the outfield, then i could see them extending him again since speedy players age more gracefully. I love cutch! but the team MIGHT need to spend that 20ish mil per year more wisely. even the red sox let jacoby ellsbury go.

        but back to the main point, there are plenty of things that could happen in which bell could be the team’s RF of the future still.

  • burghdood

    Don’t see any reason at all that Bell couldn’t get some work at 1st. all thru his development. I remember Clemente used to take grounders at third during pre-game warmups-didn’t seem to affect his hitting or concentration! Stetson Allie saved his career (at least temporarily) by simultaneously honing his hitting skills whilst working at his primary position.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      Was that when Clemente was learning how to hit, or after he had reached the majors and had polished his hitting skills?

      Allie was originally at third base. He moved to first base almost immediately to focus more on his offense, without having to worry about defense at third.

      • burghdood

        It was Clemente’s last year [on the planet :0( ]…he was just goofing around at third; catching hit balls behind his back, between his legs etc., almost like a wizard ball handler, in the Harlem Globetrotter tradition! I was sitting at the 3rd, base rail, about 20 ft. away, munching hotdogs before the game with a few of my fellow “Zum Zum” vendor guys. Clemente came over to us, crawled under the rail & started asking me questions about our $$ commission rates (maybe his contract was coming up or something)!! Bill Virdon (then head coach) was way out in center field, hollered at Clemente “Hey Clemente-quit talking to those kids & get out here & shag some flys”
        “Ol Roberto stood up, gave him the finger & hollered back “Ah, Go To Hell”-me & my buddies ( 4 teenagers) stood up to, gave Virdon the finger too & repeated “Go to Hell” in the Clemente accent HAHAHA!! It was so cool, & management was so lame at the time-Virdon was also gone the next year as HC!

        RC was just so cool about stuff
        Management was so rigid-not sure if it’s still the same…

  • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 leefoo

    Tim,

    I understand your frustration over MLB limiting our spending, but remember that there was nothing in place that would’ve stopped the Yankees, Angels, etc, from outspending the small market teams in the draft.

    They easily could’ve dominated at both ends.

    I’m quite happy with the new draft cap.

    Now, we just need something (highly unlikely) to limit MLB spending on Free Agents, etc.

    • http://wkkortas.wordpress.com wkkortas

      With the new draft cap, Josh Bell wouldn’t be in the system. The fact that big-market teams didn’t choose to play the over-slot card to the extent didn’t affect the Pirates one whit, nor does it mitigate the long-term effects it will have on the franchise. The new draft cap takes away the most effective weapon–hell, pretty much the only weapon–they had to combat the New Yorks and Los Angeleses of the world in terms of talent acquisition. I can’t see how anyone can be happy with that.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      Lee,

      You’ve said this so many times, and each time my response is the same. There is no threat from big market teams in the draft. When you draft a player, you have exclusive negotiating rights with that player. It doesn’t matter what other teams are spending.

      The biggest threat here is that the Pirates wouldn’t get Josh Bell, because it would be more likely that another team would have taken him ahead of the Pirates. Even that’s not a guarantee, since a team would have put their first round pick at risk hoping he’d sign. The Red Sox had four picks before the Pirates took Bell. They wanted Bell. They could have risked one of those picks, thrown a bunch of money at him, and still would have had three first rounders if he didn’t sign. They didn’t do this, even though they were one of the big market teams that was actually spending in the draft at that time.

      As for everyone else, the Pirates would have still gotten their guys. They would have signed Nick Kingham, Tyler Glasnow, Clay Holmes, and everyone else taken in the middle rounds.

      If other teams started spending money like the Pirates, the worst thing that could happen is that other teams might end up with better draft results and better systems. This wouldn’t have a direct impact on the Pirates, as long as they continued spending, combined with good draft scouting.

  • piratemike

    The Yankees so far have spent about 490m …..490 MILLION DOLLARS ! …..in free agency this year.
    The Pirates have spent 5m ….5 MILLION DOLLARS !
    There is no outrage there is nothing but the sound of crickets.
    Somebody said on MLBTV that MLB is better when the Yankees are winning.
    Better for who ?
    The Yankees GM said yesterday that they wanted to reset the luxury tax from 50% to 17% so that other teams couldn’t use that money to compete against them.
    The Mara’s could have had that same attitude when the NFL was being formed and the Giants could have been the Yankees of football but he decided to spread the wealth around for the betterment of the league so teams like Green Bay could compete.
    Look what is happening now. Arbitration is giving players 14 million. Teams like the Pirates can not afford to keep players through the length of their contracts. So you draft a player guide him through the minors and after about 5 years he finally gets to PNC Park and for the next two years he learns to adapt to the majors finally you have a major league player and then the arbitration years start and you start looking to trade the guy because you can’t afford him any longer. So you put in about 7 yrs of work with the guy and you have him about 4yrs with two of those yrs having him adjusting to the majors and you have to get rid of him.
    Just wanted to rant, I have no answers.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      “Somebody said on MLBTV that MLB is better when the Yankees are winning.
      Better for who ?”

      The people who say this are national columnists. Baseball is set up to get the biggest ratings when the Yankees are winning. If the World Series is the Pirates and Rays, expect horrible ratings.

      On the same note, if you’re a national writer, you’re not focused on one team. You’re focused on the entire league. And I can only imagine it works the same way — if you’re writing about the Yankees, you’re writing a story that is going to generate a ton of interest. If you have to write about the Pirates or Rays, the story isn’t going to be as popular.

      Outside of New York and national writers, you never hear the “MLB is better when the Yankees are winning”. That’s because only writers in New York and national writers benefit from this stance.

      • piratemike

        The Yankees are seen in a mythical light because the writers grew up on the “House That Ruth Built” and all the other grand images that surround that franchise so they perpetuate those images while the rest of the country sees only the cavernous wallets and the “pride of the Yankees” in that they can beat teams that they out spend 10 fold.

  • jaygray007

    RELEVANT FREE AGENT NEWS:

    Bryan Lahair, noted masher of right handed pitching and pathetic batter versus lefties, was just released by his japanese team.

    • jaygray007

      according to Chris “the boy wonder” Cotillo

      “Chris Cotillo ‏@ChrisCotillo ·27 mins
      Japanese SoftBank Hawks have released Bryan LaHair, making him a free agent. Interesting 1B option for MLB clubs.”

  • glassers

    I saw Bell several times in drills as well as a couple games during the Spring . I realize this is a limited look but I came away thinking he really had a lot of work to do in order to improve his hitting . Looking forward to seeing him this year hopefully I will not walk away this year thinking the same thing .

  • db33

    What about Pedro Alvarez learning to play first base? He’s the perfect platoon partner for Gaby Sanchez. Then maybe the Pirates could take a cheap risk on Michael Young or maybe the price on Stephen Drew comes down and he becomes willing to play third base.

  • https://profiles.google.com/113712883335661247632 unfurious

    Are there any other “logical leaps” that may be considered down the road for talented prospects at stacked positions? For instance, is there a hidden gem at catcher who could move to 3rd if their hitting progresses? I just can’t see Pedro sticking around beyond arbitration. I wouldn’t be surprised if NH started shopping him after 2014.