First Pitch: How John Jaso and Josh Bell Project at First Base

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.

  • Perhaps an uneducated question, but if Jaso is having a good year at 1B, any chance of Bell seeing time as a 4th OF when he’s not starting 1B? Or are his OF days completely over?

  • Fair overview, although I’m not sure I understand the point in using counting stats like home runs to judge power.

    ISO is more commonly used to judge power production, and going by that metric only 3 of those 31 players last year posted ISO’s under .150; 5 under .180. Josh Bell has *never* posted an ISO above .180 and early projections have him in the .120-.130 range.

    From a value perspective, a marginal defensive first baseman is going to need to be a 120 wRC+ hitter or so to approach 2 WAR; just 14 of 31 first basemen last year reached that mark (13 if you throw out Buster Posey), and of them only Eric Hosmer posted an ISO below .190.

    It’s certainly possible to make Josh Bell’s profile work – he wouldn’t be a top prospect if not – but this is not a profile with any room for error, and significant improvement will be required for him to turn into a league-average player.

  • I still like the Bonilla/Bell comparisons. Bonilla was NEVER a good defender, but he was a vital part of our teams back in the late 80s/90s.

    • I don’t project countless “deer in the headlights” at bats from this guy and dazed walks back to the dugout after looking at three called strikes.

      • That’s exactly how I feel. I feel like this guy is going to put the ball in play in late innings with the game on the line. In the 6 years with the Bucs, I remember that game winning 3-run homer Pedro hit in his rookie year, that 2-homer 18 inning game against the Cardinals, and that homer to break up Wacha’s no-hitter in the divisionals in 2013. I remember countless other times where he K’d on 3 pitches in big situations. I’d rather have Jordy Mercer up with the game on the line than Pedro.

    • leefoo- thanks for asking about the dental appointment. Bonilla made the greatest contract decision in the history of the MLB when he extended his contract with more money. He gets almost a million $1.2 for the next 20 years. The Mets made a terrible deal.

  • Present defensive shortcomings aside, there are other reasons to be optimistic about Bell.
    As Tim has outlined many times, scouts outside the organization do not project him to be a platoon player. He seems to have made great strides improving his capabilities from the right side….and the video backs that up.
    What the statistics don’t pick up is the mental and emotional maturity. I have always been impressed by Bell’s confidence and presence. To me, he comes across as a star in the making, and a player who will handle the challenges of MLB. I am glad we kept him and I hope he has a long career in Pittsburgh.

  • God, just don’t try to change his swing from the right side. Work with what you’ve got. It ruined Chris Duffy, but I think there were other problems with the young man at that time.

  • I was hoping the Pirates would have signed a RH option (and maybe Rogers was it), because I am not sure what Jaso does when Bell likely arrives in 2016 (or unlikely in 2017).
    I think we’re all assuming Jaso and Morse start the year in a platoon at first. If that is true, Bell’s arrival won’t really bring any value with it as:
    – he is unlikely to hit better than Jaso from his strong left side in 2016 during his first taste of MLB pitching
    – it is unlikely he will hit better than Morse (and Rogers) from his weaker right side in 2016 … And that is if the Pirates would even be comfortable using Bell on the right side in the majors this year
    – it is unlikely his fielding would be noticeably better than any of the other options

  • Why no love for Inspector Morse? I assume he is going to play this year.

    • Jaso will get much more time than Morse, and Bell will be an every day starter.

      • I guess we replaced $4 million for TABATA with the same with Morse. Maybe Morse will get an early offensive bounce and they trade him to the AL.

        • It might be overrated but I can’t but feel like Morse is a way better clubhouse presence than Tabata.

          • Yes but that tattoo on Tabata’s neck was “real entertainment”.

          • Shame on you…….there are no metrics to measure clubhouse presence. You risk the dinosaur label by making such a comment.

  • I still remember Donn Clendennon doing splits at 1B. Jaso looked like he was fielding everything off his left foot. But like you say, there’s time to fix that. This video clip shows him making more plays than he has in ML games.

  • Bell’s ability to control the strike zone and draw walks should push up his offensive output, especially if he improves greatly when batting right handed. He hits the ball with authority too.

    He could be a ≥ .900 OPS hitter in his prime — an Edgar Martinez in style and, hopefully, in substance.

  • Putting a ceiling on a former OF at 1B, defensively speaking, before he even plays the position in the Major Leagues is nonsensical. He’s athletic enough, he’s been considered a decent OF in the past, and he realizes it’s his only opportunity to reach the Majors. He’s going to improve, perhaps greatly.

    You’re essentially writing a guy off before he even has the chance to learn/play the position. That may please the pitch-fork-crowd, but it’s not nearly coherent and plausible – at the moment – to hold up to scrutiny. Until proven otherwise, Bell will be fine *in time*. Let’s allow him to have *that time*.

    • I’m projecting improvement from Bell, but saying he doesn’t look like he’ll be a defender with positive value. That’s a fair assessment. It’s not writing him off either.

      It’s my job to take what I’ve seen and make projections. They’re not all going to be good. If they were, they’d be worthless. I can’t look at what I’ve seen from Bell over the last year, and what I’ve discussed with scouts, and just give him a pass.

      You’re giving no evidence that he’ll improve greatly defensively. It’s more of a hope than based on anything he’s shown. I’m saying he’ll improve, but there’s no sign he’ll improve greatly to the point where his defense will have positive value.

      • I think it is much better to be cautiously encouraged, but expecting or projecting too much will put a barrier up for this kid and he does not need that. From everything I have read about him, his work ethic is as good as anybody, and I think we can all live with that. For 2016 I hope he continues to make contact and improve his defense; from there we can look forward to better returns each year. If he can achieve Top half of qualified MLB 1B defensively by 2019, the Pirates will be in excellent condition.

      • To be honest, it does sound like your down on Bell at times. Which I don’t get because there’s a lot of other prospects that come with their own question marks you aren’t as critical on.

        Taillon hasn’t pitched for two years, and to hear you laud the guy he’ll be fine. I’ve never understood that.

        • I’m comparing his upside to some really good first basemen. I’m pointing out flaws, but saying he’ll overcome them and improve. Not sure how that’s down on him.

          I’ve pointed out flaws with Taillon as well. The reason I’m saying he’s fine is because he showed a lot of improvements last year. He’s pitched, I’ve seen him, and I evaluate him on that.

      • My goodness. You can’t win, can you? Even *hint* at saying something less than flattering and the minions even jump on you…

    • Laughably naive to think you can put a glove on any athlete and turn him into a Major League caliber infielder.