The Pittsburgh Pirates will enter the 2015 season with Pedro Alvarez as their starting first baseman. Corey Hart will get some time as a platoon partner, and Andrew Lambo will be a depth option, likely making the Opening Day roster as a bench outfielder. There are question marks with all three first basemen. Can Alvarez make the transition to the new position, and can he return to hitting like he did in 2012-2013? Will Hart’s knees hold up, and will his bat bounce back? Can Lambo carry his offense from Triple-A over to the majors?
While the Pirates have question marks in the short-term at first base, there is no question who their long-term first baseman projects to be. With Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco holding down the outfield in Pittsburgh for the next several years, there was no need to keep Josh Bell in right field. And with Bell’s power potential, he makes a great candidate at first.
The Pirates had Bell taking grounders at first base last year, and then made the switch to the new position full-time during the Fall Instructional Leagues. Bell then went to the Arizona Fall League, where he continued at first base while getting some extra experience against upper level competition.
“It was good to get some good work in, during instructs,” Bell said. “Struggled out there for the first couple of weeks, and then I found my feet underneath me again. Started getting the reps I needed to get, and I felt good leaving.”
Bell said that the quickness in the infield was the biggest adjustment in moving from the outfield. You get more time to adjust to a ball hit at you in the outfield, while the infield is more “bang-bang,” as Bell described it. The pivot and throw to second is also a key thing when making the transition to first base, and is something Bell has also been focusing on.
“That’s one of the things that we worked on during instructs, just lowering my arm slot a little bit to make a more repeatable throw to second base,” Bell said. “I locked it down then, and actually had success with that in the fall league, which was something I was happy about.”
Bell is expected to be the everyday first baseman in Altoona this year, and as of my conversation with him in January, he hasn’t heard anything different. He has been practicing everyday at first base, even after instructs and the AFL completed. The most telling sign is the fact that while he still has his outfield glove, he hasn’t been using it since the end of the 2014 season.
Of course, Bell is a prospect, which means he’s no guarantee to have success in the majors. He’s got the tools that project for him to hit for power and average from both sides of the plate, giving him a bat you can dream on. But the bat still needs some work, which is the main reason he’s not projected to be in the majors until the middle of the 2016 season.
Over the last two years, we have been pointing out that Bell has had some issues with his swing from the right side. He’s got a two-part swing where he starts open, then squares up before the pitch, and the transition can sometimes look awkward. The numbers against left-handers struggled last year in the first few months, although Bell quickly started turning that around by the middle of the season.
The reason for the two-part swing is simple. Bell likes to stay open to see the ball better, while the Pirates want him getting back sooner to square up on pitches. I talked with Bell’s hitting coach, Kory DeHaan, about this last year.
“If he’s going to err, he’s going to err on the side of getting that foot down and square a little earlier, which at times can make it seem like that two-part swing, where it gets down and then [he] has to get going again,” DeHaan said. “We’re trying to keep that as smooth as possible, where he’s still in a good hitting position as he brings that foot in to square, and then is able to drive through the ball. That’s just an ongoing process of keeping the swing feeling good and then rhythm, and trying to drive the ball up the middle.”
DeHaan noted that Bell’s hands are so good, and he has so much trust in his hands, that his lower half doesn’t do as much work, which is why the swing can look awkward at times.
“We’re trying to get that all synced up, and as consistent as possible, ready for that fastball, ready for his zone, to do damage,” DeHaan said.
Bell did show improvements with his numbers against lefties after the first month and a half of the season. He will still stay open pre-pitch, although it won’t be anything too drastic. The main focus now is his approach, how his hands work, and focusing on driving the ball to the opposite field.
“I think it just came with repetition and getting used to everything on a daily basis,” Bell said of his improvements against lefties. “Virtually from the beginning of the year on, I felt good from both sides of the plate. I hope to start strong again this year. I’m a lot more close than I was two years ago, and I’m seeing success with that.”
Another issue with Bell last year came at the end of the season. He was promoted to Altoona, where his average and on-base percentage looked good. However, his power dropped off at the new level, and didn’t return when he went to the Arizona Fall League. The initial concern here is that Bell won’t hit for power in the upper levels, although I don’t really subscribe to that theory, since he’s got the strength, the bat speed, and the line drive approach to hit for power in the upper levels.
The other factor here was that this promotion came at the end of the year, at a time when Bell was tiring. This seems to be what the Pirates attribute to the drop in power, since Bell’s focus this off-season has been on getting stronger.
“Towards the end of the year I guess the ball wasn’t flying for me,” Bell said of the power drop. “Kind of carried over to the fall leagues as well, but right now, one of the things I’m focusing on this off-season is power in the weight room. Getting my body to where it needs to be. Carrying me throughout the entire season. Keeping my body strong, so I can produce those runs and help my team get the W’s we want to get.”
In previous years, Bell’s focus was more on cardio than on weights. The move to first base from the outfield gives him a chance to add some bulk to his frame. The fact that first base isn’t as demanding will also help keep him fresh all year.
“I realized my legs weren’t strong enough,” Bell said of the end of the 2014 season. “Didn’t feel as good as I wanted to feel at the end of the year. This off-season it’s more strength, and I know that I’m going to be at first base too, so I can kind of bulk up a little bit and get the most out of my body when it comes to my swing.”
Bell will likely spend all of the 2015 season in Altoona, with a chance to jump to Indianapolis at the end of the year if his bat is performing well. He put up strong numbers in Bradenton last year, before falling off at the end of the season. Time will tell if the new strength will help his bat, and help avoid fatigue at the end of the season. As to whether the bat will provide an impact in the upper levels and the majors, DeHaan certainly seemed to think so last year in Bradenton.
“[The bat] can play in the big leagues,” DeHaan said. “He’s going to put the ball in play. It’s going to be with authority too.”