First Pitch: The Pirates Are Starting to See Some Good Problems

I’ve been getting a lot of questions about Josh Bell lately, specifically wondering when he might arrive in the Majors. It’s a weird question to receive at a time when John Jaso is hitting for a .344/.403/.469 line (prior to tonight), and ranks 8th out of 25 qualified first basemen in WAR. Even if you consider moving Bell to a corner outfield spot, Gregory Polanco ranks tied for first in WAR for right fielders, and Starling Marte is tied for second for left-fielders.

Bell is blocked at every spot he could possibly play (and I’m not sure the corner outfield spots are an option for him now that he’s added muscle with the move to first). Yet, I get the questions about when he’ll arrive.

The Pirates broke the MLB draft when they signed Bell for $5 M as a second rounder in 2011. His development started off slow, then really picked up in the last two years, and it looks like his power is finally starting to arrive after gradual changes to his swing over the last year. He’s currently hitting for a .321/.424/.589 line in 66 plate appearances, with three homers — almost half of his 2015 total.

Bell is a top prospect in all of baseball. The Pirates have had a lot of top prospects coming through the system in previous years, but there has always been a spot for them in the Majors. Gregory Polanco wasn’t going to be held back by Travis Snider. Starling Marte wasn’t going to be held back by Jose Tabata and Alex Presley. Gerrit Cole had a spot in the rotation waiting for him. That’s almost going to be the same case this year when Tyler Glasnow and/or Jameson Taillon are ready.

This is a new situation for the Pirates, and a new situation for Pirates fans. They’ve got one of the best prospects in the game, who is off to a hot start and looks like he might be playing up to his potential, and there is no clear path to the majors for him. This is one of the best problems a team can have, and it’s also very rare.

The Pirates are having similar “good problems” throughout their system this year. They’ve got too many prospects in Triple-A, and are trying to find playing time for all of them, doing so by making every player as versatile as possible. They’ve got guys in Double-A and High-A on the bench who would be guaranteed starting time in previous years due to their potential, past stats, and/or current stats. None of those guys project as top prospects, and their chances of making the majors are small. It wasn’t too long ago that any player with a remote chance of reaching the majors would start for the Pirates in the minors.

In Bell’s case, the Pirates could use this situation to their advantage, adding additional depth this year. They could call him up throughout the year to serve as a designated hitter when they play American League teams on the road. They could call him up as a bench player in the second half, and start easing him in at first base, while still giving John Jaso the majority of starts at the position. Or, if Jaso gets injured, they’ve got one of the best prospects in the game ready to take over, which isn’t something a lot of teams can say.

If everyone stays healthy, I think the bench approach would be the best route. Eventually, Bell needs to take over at first. Bringing him up mid-season and easing him into the lineup would put the Pirates in position to not only have a strong bench, but would give Bell an easy learning experience and set him up well to take over full-time at the start of the 2017 season.

You could argue that they’re not going to bring Bell up in that role, especially with Jaso playing so well. But then when would Bell arrive? Jaso is under contract through the 2017 season, and if you don’t bring him up when Jaso is on the team, you’re holding off on him being the first baseman until the 2018 season. The Pirates have a free half season of Bell’s service time, and no rush to get him in the lineup as a regular player. Might as well use that situation to their advantage and make his transition easier.

If all goes well in that scenario, the Pirates would have a great trade chip this off-season in Jaso, who would look like a huge value if he manages to hit for a full season and show his current skills at first base — which haven’t been that bad. Remember, he’s making $4 M per year, and at his current WAR, he’s almost earned all of his 2016 salary (FanGraphs has him worth $3.5 M so far this year).

No matter which scenario you take with this, the Pirates are in a great position with their first base options. That’s certainly refreshing to see, especially when you consider the horrible short-term options and lack of long-term options at first base in previous years. Add in some of the other roster crunches in the lower levels, and the Pirates are starting to see some good problems in their minor league system.

**I’m heading out to West Virginia today, catching a five game series to see everyone on the roster. The guys I’m obviously looking forward to the most are Mitch Keller and Ke’Bryan Hayes. However, there are a few other promising guys on the team, and I’ll have features throughout the trip, and after the trip. I’ve also got some features from last week in Bradenton left over, which I’ll start with at the beginning of this week. If you haven’t subscribed already, you should do so now, if only to read about Keller and Hayes (but also to get all of our other great coverage).

**Top Performers: Could the Future Left Side of the Pirates Infield Come From the 2015 Draft Class? Our weekly Top Performers article, with live scouting reports on close to 20 players this week.

**Prospect Watch: Season Debut for Austin Meadows. Austin Meadows made his season debut, recapped by Sean McCool. Sean will have more analysis on Meadows in the morning.

**Clay Holmes Adds Another Pitch to His Arsenal. Sean wrote about how Clay Holmes has added a new pitch to his mix, debuting the new offering on Sunday.

**Minor Moves: Meadows Returns, Florimon Added to Indianapolis, Richardson Released. All of the daily minor league transactions broken down.

**Draft Prospect Watch: Justin Dunn Rockets Up the Draft Charts. John Dreker has the latest on the draft picks who are rated near where the Pirates are picking this year.

**Morning Report: Checking the Progress of the 2012 Draft Class. John also continues his draft recaps, looking at where the 2012 class is right now.

  • I think they should leverage the bench and the options by switching off Bell and Rogers as MLB back up and AAA starter. Swap them in mid-June, again in mid August, and then keep them both up in September when rosters expand.

  • Without a doubt the system is starting to see the results of the navy seals training program

  • I know it is not anywhere near comparing apples to apples but Paul Goldschmidt also has 3 errors in 20 games for the Dbacks. Tim, any word on how actually looks in the field? Were the errors fluky type things or ugly Pedroesque?

  • I hope Jaso doesn’t falter so Bell can spend the whole year in AAA. His defense needs work. It’s never good when a 1B man leads a team in errors.

    • Ditto– If Jaso has a good to very good year, so much the better for marketability. If he has a monster year, sell very high and get a very solid return for the guy.

  • How far away are the Pirates from having Bell, Hanson, Newman and Hayes as their starting infield? What a great problem to have.

    • If I were to guess, Bell next year, Hanson the following, maybe, Newman and Hayes in 2018 or 19 at the earliest. Hayes will be determined by how Kang recovers
      from his injury. Newman will replace Mercer sooner than later. As you say, good problems to have. When they are ready to go, the youngins will allow the Bucs to trade Mercer, Kang and Harrison for quality returns as long as they are still playing decent in a couple of years.

      • I’d like to see Harrison stick around as a super-utility guy when Hanson is ready to take over at second.

        • What will determine Harrison’s fate after Hanson is ready will be what his trade value is and is there a similar player that can do what he does in house or on the market that is cheaper. Again great problems for the Pirates to have. Truly fun to be a Bucco fan again!

    • Hanson’s off to a great start. Definitely has the looks of a very good second baseman and a true leadoff hitter.

  • Finally, marketable veterans and lots of top prospects ready to replace them. Great problems to have for a MLB team. Finally able to compete with the Cards in the business model. People always wondered how the Cards were always able to have a great next guy up. You draft em, you sign quality international FA, and you trade veterans when you have prospects ready to take over. Great time to be a Bucco Fan!

  • I don’t believe we’d want to platoon Bell and Jaso, because Bell is better from the left side.

    Quite the current dilemma, but as Scott K points out below, these things tend to work themselves out.

    • If I were to bet, I would say Bell stays in AAA for as long as Jaso stays hot. If Jaso has a .300 average and good OB numbers all year, Bell gets called up in September. That way he gets to play everyday to keep working on the Defense. If Jaso gets hurt or faceplants, you see Bell up at that point. I would think that the Bucs want Bell to keep working on the D and if Jaso has a monster year, you can get something good for him in the off season and have Bell ready to go in the spring.

  • Good problems…. Great to hear.
    Well written too.

    Tim, do you see anyone who we have that another
    team would be willing to really open up their bank
    and we get in exchange real quality in return if
    that player would be blocked here?

    Also hope you can get an update in Charleston
    as to what “the toastman” is up to this season.
    Pass also our best to him as well.

  • Really missing Pedro…

  • How is Bell’s defense at first coming along?

  • All that and it doesn’t cover Osuna who is also showing his potential although a bit further off.

  • These things have a way of usually working themselves out. Be it injury or performance, the once murky path becomes clear. I expect this will be the case with Bell and Jaso.

    • Well stated and any decision is still 2 months away. The decision is pretty clear in my eyes – a 32 yr old slow footed on base machine with little power, or a 23 yr old 1B/OF who can hit for average and be that middle of the order bat the Pirates have desired for years? Yes, I favor Bell. One other fact to consider is that by mid-June, Jaso will reach the total number of PA’s he had for all of 2015, and he only played defense in 8 games last year. That said, his contract is one that any club, especially an AL club, would be thrilled to get – excellent value.

      I know eyebrows were raised (mine included) this off-season when SRod, Joyce, and Jaso were acquired from FA, and all for the grand total of $7,5 mil in 2016. Looking good, as is that Locke kid. Four starts so far in 2016. Three of those starts tell one story – 1-1, 1.67 ERA, with 2 quality starts. The 4th game was at SD and he gave up 8 ER which is the reason his overall ERA is up over 5.00+.

      • Some serious stats manipulation there regarding Locke. In reality he’s had one horrific start, two in which he did the provebial, “dance between raindrops”, and then last night which was pretty good. His FIP and xFIP in his 3 starts before last night were all over 5. That’s not good no matter how you try to interpret it. And last night he had an assist from home blue.

        Couple of thoughts… if Jaso and Joyce continue to perform and the Bucs are on track for playoffs, I don’t move either. It would make no sense. The guy I would consider moving – if Kang is fully back by July – is Freese. That said, now that Bell is more comfortable in the IF, is it worth giving him a trial at 3b to increase his versatility?

        On Glasnow, it could well be that his best value to the Bucs in 2016 is in the pen, not as a SP if he can’t master his other offerings. I’m very comfortable with Taillon, but not Glasnow for both quality and makeup concerns. But if the pen doesn’t get better, and if Niese continues to be fairly solid, I do think the pen offers Glasnow a chance to significantly contribute in 2016 without a ton of risk. It’ll be heresy to many here, but longer term, if he can’t get beyond two pitches, who’s to say Glasnow couldn’t become a Chapman, and wouldn’t that be nice, especially if the other AAA guys all proceed on schedule?

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