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.

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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