BRADENTON, Fla. – While the cut was expected and inevitable, Josh Bell finally had his name called on Friday, getting optioned to Triple-A Indianapolis. The first baseman will eventually return in a starting role one day for the Pirates, but still has some development before he’s ready.
Bell showed some strong development at the plate in 2015 with Indianapolis. He hit .345 in 35 games with a .946 OPS. This all came after continued adjustments throughout the year to his leg kick, with the final adjustment in Triple-A leading to the stronger results.
The biggest thing Bell will need to work on in Indianapolis will be his fielding. He is in his second full season as a first baseman, although Bell certainly sees the progression there from where he was a year ago.
“It is night and day difference,” Bell said. “A full year of ground balls and a full year of repetitions. The game reps are really what has helped me, just knowing where I need to be, staying active in my mind, even though the ball might not be hit to me and knowing what I am supposed to do if it is hit to me. I have laid that foundation for myself and I am excited to see how much growth I can have.”
He pointed out that in his exit meeting, that the Pirates were just looking for him to get more game action and more reps at first base. Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington sees the same progress.
“When you realize he’s been at first base for 16 months, to be able to be where he is right now, that’s a lot of fun,” Huntington said. “We’ve still got work to do there, but huge steps forward.”
With the work at first base, Bell said that it is all about being more comfortable and athletic at the position.
“Taking every day seriously and taking every work day and repetition as seriously as I can [contributes to the improvement],” Bell said. “Every day, I try to work on my hip flexibility, trying to maintain and get a little more athletic at first base. I try to get lower to the ground when I field and when I pick balls. I am trying to stay more athletic in the throws. That is one thing that I am going to be working on the rest of my career and making sure that I take advantage of each day.”
At the plate in the Spring, Bell was just 3-for-18 with a double. Much of that he attributes to rust and thinks he will be just fine once he shakes that off.
“It is good to get back in the box after five months,” Bell said. “It is kind of tough when you try to do a little bit too early, but I feel like I was able to get those cob webs off of me. I am able to get a couple more weeks in minor league camp and take that into the season and hopefully start like I did last year.”
Huntington was also not concerned, as he saw signs from Bell, despite the tough start to the campaign.
“[We] saw some great signs,” Huntington said. “When he was relaxed and not trying to do too much, you see the strike zone discipline, pitch recognition, incredible barrel of the ball, impact. You see all four of those things, and they’re great signs of the future. The challenge is the consistency of the at-bats, and the age-old not trying to do too much. When Josh stays within himself, he’s got a chance to be a really good Major League hitter for a long time. But we’ve also emphasized to him the power will come, and we don’t need him to go out and try to hit 30 home runs this year.”
As for when Bell could arrive, that might depend on John Jaso. The Pirates signed Jaso over the off-season to a two-year, $8 M deal, with the plan to convert him to first base. Jaso has a strong bat, and is one of the best in the game against right-handed pitching. So the question is whether Bell can take over as the starter at mid-season with Jaso on the team for another year and a half.
“There’s so many variables that will come into [the time being right],” Huntington said. “Josh isn’t far away from being able to help us if the opportunity was there. We’ve signed John Jaso with the idea that he would help us in 2016 and 2017. Having too many good players is a wonderful problem to have, and you cross each of those bridges as you get to them. Our goal is to help Josh be ready when the need is there, and to help John be the best player that he can be, and figure it out when those two roads intersect.”
While Bell said that he is just going to focus on what he can control and improving each day, he also pointed out that he realizes how close that he is to his dream and goal.
“It is incredible just being one phone call away,” Bell said. “When I got called up [to Indianapolis] last year, it hit me that I was just one phone call away from seeing big leaguers on a daily basis. It is a different experience. It is definitely humbling and definitely eye-opening. I am in a different spot this year than I was last year. I was learning first base. I have laid that foundation to continue to grow and am going from there.”
There are still things that Bell needs to work on at the plate to continue his progression from last year. But the main thing he needs to work on in Triple-A is his defense. He could eventually create a really good problem for the Pirates if he’s ready by mid-season, as he’d give an impact bat, and the ability to move Jaso off the position and strengthen the bench.