There is one thing that was obvious when watching the present and future first basemen today at Pirate City — defense is going to be a big concern. That would be expected with a catcher who is converting to a position he has barely played, and a former outfielder starting his second season at the position.
I posted video today of both first basemen taking ground balls and picking balls out of the dirt during their infield drills. These come with a few disclaimers. For one, it’s January 11th. The season is almost three months away, so there’s plenty of time for practice and development. This was also the first practice of the Spring, and we’re still a month away from Spring Training. In short, it’s early. But with that said, there’s a lot to work on with each player.
The Pirates didn’t have the best defense last year with Pedro Alvarez. While Jaso and Bell have things to work on with their defense, they should be able to handle the position better than Alvarez handled it last year. I saw things for both players to work on, but I didn’t see anything alarming enough to think that either player will eventually be the disaster that Alvarez was when they are eventually called upon.
Beyond the defense, there’s the question of offense. In Jaso’s case, there isn’t much of a question. He’s been a fantastic hitter against right-handed pitching, which will be his role going forward. He’s comfortable in that role, so I’d expect him to continue his success, giving the Pirates a strong left side of the platoon.
Eventually, Bell will take over at first base, as he’s got the bat capable of being a much better option and an everyday player.
To expand on that last part, I think we’ve been more critical than any outlet about Bell’s issues at the plate from the right side. In fact, I think we’ve been talking about it before it even became noticed as an issue (assuming others have actually noticed it). Bell has always had a two-part swing. He starts open to see the ball better, but the Pirates want him getting back into hitting position earlier so that he can drive the ball better. The result in the past has been an awkward, off-balanced approach that didn’t lead to good results.
Every scout or prospect writer I’ve talked to about Bell gets the same question: do you think he will be a platoon player in the future? So far, none of them have answered yes.
Some of them admit there is a big problem. Others are less concerned, and feel he still hits and gets on base well enough to off-set any lack of power or finesse from that side. There’s also the fact that he’s still got time to improve, which has been evident in the last year.
Bell made some big improvements to his game on the left-side at the end of the year by adjusting his leg kick. In the video I posted today, he looked great from the left side, and much improved from the right side, avoiding the off-balanced and extreme two-part approach. He actually looked comfortable swinging from the right side, and looked like he could generate some power. It was the best I’ve seen him look from that side since entering the system.
I also posted video today of where Bell was at about a year ago. The changes made in that time were huge. Just think how much he could continue to improve in the next six months or more. I still see him as a starter with above average potential or better as a first baseman, and that only becomes more likely with these changes. Unlike Jaso, there are still some questions with the offense here, but Bell is doing a great job of removing those questions.
Finally, neither option at first base will give the Pirates a traditional first base bat. That is, they won’t be seeing a ton of homers. I’m not ruling anything out for Bell, but the truth is that the Pirates have been preaching a line drive/higher average approach, which fits Bell’s current swing. He’ll still hit some home runs, but instead of 25-35 a year, we might be talking 15-20, and maybe a bit more if he continues his development.
I’m not sure this is a bad thing. Last year, out of 31 qualified first basemen, 16 had 20+ homers. Only four of those guys finished with below a 2.0 WAR (Pedro Alvarez was one of them). Some of these guys had poor defense. Some had poor averages and on-base skills. The guys who only hit homers were the ones who finished with low values, usually around replacement level.
Out of the guys with fewer than 20 homers, six had a 2.0 WAR or better. The guys who did this were excellent at hitting and getting on base, while being just below 20 homers. Some of them had poor defense, ending up in the 2-4 WAR range, depending on their other numbers.
While Bell projects to improve with his defense, I’d be surprised if he ever becomes a positive contributor at the position defensively. He won’t be the disaster that Alvarez was, and his offense will more than make up for poor defense, but expecting positive value doesn’t seem realistic. I do think he projects to be an outstanding hitter, and projects for enough power that he could be one of those 2-4 WAR players like Carlos Santana or Eric Hosmer were in 2015.
If Bell ever does figure out how to make his power click, then we’re talking about one of the best offensive first basemen in baseball in the future. But that would be an extreme projection. Right now it’s not out of the question to expect him to be a great hitter, even with his right-handed swing included, with the potential for 15-20 or more homers a year. If his swing keeps improving the way it has in the last year, that kind of production could come sooner than later.
**I’ll have more live coverage from mini camp tomorrow, including a featured article from my 1-on-1 interview with Tyler Glasnow. The top 20 prospect countdown will resume next week, as I don’t want it getting buried by all of the news and reports this week. You can always get the full top 20 now, along with the rest of the top 50 and all 200+ reports by purchasing the 2016 Prospect Guide.
**John Jaso on the Move to First Base, Success vs RHP, Platoons, and Concussions. A look at some of the key topics surrounding John Jaso this year.
**Pirates Notes: Jaso and Bell First Base Video, Kang Update, Improved Hitting From Bell. Video of Jaso and Bell on defense, plus Bell’s hitting.
**Despite Concerns, Pirates Ranked Among Top Ten Rotations in Majors. A good ranking for the rotation, which I still don’t think is complete.
**Winter Mini-Camp: Day One Discussion Thread. Some notes in this story on the guys currently in camp.
**Pirates Sign Daniel Bard to Minor League Deal, Re-Sign Guido Knudson. I’d add Bard to the list of pitchers who can hit 97+ MPH, but I’m not sure he can still hit that. This is another zero risk move to add a hard thrower to the pen. Bringing back Knudson adds another hard throwing depth option. A few of these guys will hit, and the Pirates will have a much stronger bullpen for it.