Prior to the 2011 draft, Josh Bell sent a letter to every team, telling them not to draft him. He intended to go to college at the University of Texas, despite being projected as a mid-first round pick. Whether that letter was just a negotiating ploy or actually legit will never really be known. A lot of teams — including interested teams like the Boston Red Sox — passed over Bell due to the letter. The Pittsburgh Pirates ignored it, drafted Bell, then gave him a record-shattering $5 M bonus in the second round to sign. The bonus ended up breaking the old draft, with MLB adding new rules to restrict that type of spending.
There was a reason the Pirates broke the draft to sign Bell. He was seen as a guy who could have plus power from each side of the plate, along with plus hitting skills. The combination gave you a bat you could dream on, and a potential impact guy in the majors.
Those dreams were put on hold in 2012, when Bell missed most of the season in West Virginia with a knee injury. He returned in 2013 to West Virginia, putting up a .279 average and an .806 OPS. Those were good numbers, but not great. There was some promise that he hit 37 doubles and 13 homers, and did well from a plate patience standpoint. But he didn’t look close to the guy he was projected to become around draft day.
This year, Bell has looked a lot like that prospect. He finished his time in Bradenton with a .335/.384/.502 line. His strikeout rate is at a microscopic 12%. His .167 ISO continues to show promise, following up on his .174 from last year. He’s also hitting for average, after turning things around against left-handers this year, and dominating right-handers all season.
The big test for Bell will be the move to Altoona. That’s always difficult for hitters, because they start seeing better pitching prospects more frequently. He will have about a month and a half at the level in 2014, which is about a month less than Gregory Polanco had last year. Bell’s emergence this year raises a question of where he fits in with the Pirates in the future.
Bell is a right fielder, and the Pirates definitely don’t have a need for an outfielder anytime soon. They’ve got Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco together through at least the 2018 season, which is the final year McCutchen is under control. All three are much better defensively than Bell, who isn’t a liability, but isn’t strong defensively.
If Bell has a future with the Pirates, it would be at first base. But don’t expect that move anytime soon. Neal Huntington was asked about that last week in his session with the media, and basically said the club had no plans to move Bell to first right now.
“He’s athletically gifted enough that if it comes to that — baseball is a funny game. Depth is fleeting, when you think you have too many players at one position you can very quickly end up not having that many,” Huntington said. “So, we’re going to continue to develop Josh as a hitter. There may come a point down the road, just as it does with every player in our system, when they’re blocked by a pretty good player in front of them, you look at that point. You don’t want to make the move too early because who knows, maybe there is something that presents itself a year from now, or two years from now that we need Josh in the outfield or Player X at position Y and we’ve moved them off of that because we looked three years down the road. So we want to be conservative and make sure we continue to focus on developing the bat, and make sure we continue to develop the overall baseball player. And, if a position change is warranted some time down the road, then we can tackle it at that point.”
This makes sense when you consider the other alternative for Bell — a trade. With the future of the outfield secure, Bell would be the best trade chip the Pirates have. He recently rated as a top 50 prospect, and if he continues hitting in Double-A, he could move higher. Bell could be a big piece if the Pirates wanted to make a big move for a top of the rotation starter.
Such a trade would still leave the Pirates looking for a long-term first baseman. It would also leave them without insurance in the low-probability chance that one of the current outfielders doesn’t work out.
Back when it looked like the Pirates only had Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton in their short and long-term rotation, a Bell trade would have made sense. However, the emergence of Jeff Locke and Vance Worley in the last two months lessens the need for starting pitching. Add to that the fact that Nick Kingham and Jameson Taillon could be in the majors by this time next year, with Tyler Glasnow soon to follow, and a trade for pitching in the long-term doesn’t seem as urgent. With the first base platoon struggling, one of the long-term needs still remains first base. That’s where Bell could help the most, by possibly making the eventual jump to first, and becoming the starter of the future.
If Bell continues to hit in Altoona this year, then I think the Pirates should give him some reps at first base in the off-season, followed by a switch next year. It’s possible that he could be the Pirates’ first baseman by this time next year, after getting a few months at the position in Triple-A. That’s not far fetched when you consider the path Gregory Polanco took. Bell is a year younger than Polanco, so he’s going through High-A and Double-A at the same age. The numbers in Bradenton were much better for Bell. Polanco was in Double-A at this time last year, and didn’t exactly tear up the level, with a .762 OPS. If Bell progresses quickly, just like Polanco did during Winter Ball, then it’s very possible he could be in Pittsburgh by this time next year.
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