CHARLESTON, WV – After years of replacement level production at the position, and no big prospects on the horizon, the Pirates finally have a great situation at first base in the short- and long-term.
In the short-term, they’ve got John Jaso performing well on both sides of the ball. He’s currently hitting for a .329/.390/.438 line in 82 plate appearances, and the defense has looked a lot better than anyone expected during Spring Training.
Jaso is under contract through the 2017 season if the Pirates need to rely on him as their only option. But chances are, they won’t have to do that, as they’ve got a good long-term option in Triple-A. Josh Bell is off to a great start, hitting for a .301/.407/.507 line in 86 plate appearances. He’s also finally hitting for power, which many have been waiting to see, after he was advertised as a guy who could hit home runs and hit for a high average out of the draft in 2011.
A big reason for Bell’s power surge is his new batting stance, which saw him add a leg kick to his swing last year, generating more momentum from the lower half. He’s finally getting comfortable with the swing, it’s looking a lot more natural and smooth, and that is all showing in the results.
“In Josh’s case, he’s very driven, but he also impatient, and will jump from swing adjustment to swing adjustment arguably too quickly,” Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington said. “There are times where just staying the course and staying with the adjustment that’s had some success will allow him to continue that success and continue to build on that. We are starting to see a little bit less lane changing, and we do believe that will allow that maturation and that continued growth and development to play on a more consistent basis.”
As I wrote the other day, the combination of Jaso and Bell gives the Pirates a situation they haven’t encountered in the past. They’ve got one of the best first base prospects in the game in Triple-A, and he’s looking like he’s not far from being ready for the majors. They also have one of the best performing first basemen in the Majors, which means Bell is blocked. But that could be an advantage to Bell’s development, as Huntington sees it.
“The ideal development of young players is to have really good Major League players that allows them to get significant at-bats at the upper levels,” Huntington said. “St. Louis has done a tremendous job over the years, even with their college hitters, of getting them significant at-bats at Double-A and Triple-A. We’ve experienced guys who haven’t had significant at-bats. Their transition to the Major Leagues is much tougher than the guys who have had significant at-bats.”
Huntington referenced Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker as guys who did receive significant time in Triple-A. Walker saw just over 1,000 plate appearances with Indianapolis before he was called up. McCutchen received 881 plate appearances at the level.
“Their transition went about as smoothly as a young hitter’s transition can go,” Huntington said. That shows in the numbers, as Walker was almost immediately a 2.5 WAR player per year, and McCutchen was a 3.5 WAR player immediately, and then improved well beyond that.
Huntington referenced Starling Marte, Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata, and Gregory Polanco as guys who didn’t spend a lot of time in Triple-A, and all struggled initially. Tabata never made the successful jump to the majors. Alvarez had some success, but never lived up to his potential. Marte struggled a bit when he first came up, then became a 4+ WAR player each year after that. Polanco took about a year and a half before his success this year.
“We’ve had much harder transitions with all of those guys,” Huntington said. “So in a perfect world, we’re in a position to give our young hitters and our young pitchers significant upper level opportunities, significant upper level experience. There is a reason why each level exists.”
But Huntington did point out that this was all in hindsight, as they felt each guy was ready when they were called up.
“In each of the four cases where, in hindsight, we might have benefited from giving those guys some more playing time, we did feel like they were ready. We did feel like they were on the front edge of the readiness curve and what we call it. But they certainly would have benefited from more time. Given what we’re doing at the Major League level, and anticipating it continues, we’ll be in a position to bring [this year’s prospects] up when they’re later in the readiness curve.”
So Bell might be ready this summer, but Jaso’s presence could allow the Pirates to give him some more time in Triple-A, which definitely doesn’t hurt.
The Pirates might have this advantage with a lot of their position players right now. There are no holes in the current lineup, and plenty of depth around the field. That’s going to make it difficult for most prospects to arrive in the majors, unless an injury occurs. That’s why the Pirates have their infielders moving around to different positions, not only to get additional playing time in Triple-A, but to increase their chances of making the majors.
“We’re working hard to get a lot of those infielders bouncing all over the field,” Huntington said. “Because we have a good second baseman, a good shortstop, two good third basemen now, once Kang gets healthy. A good first baseman. We have three good outfielders. So the ability to make our club as a straight starter is very hard for a young player. So the ability to play multiple positions will benefit them.”
Bell previously played in the outfield, which also blocks his path to the majors. But Huntington did mention that he’s got that as an option.
“He has the outfield in his back pocket. We still want to spend all of our time and energy on first base. He is showing signs of getting better, and will give us more options.”
That was a bit of a surprise that the Pirates would consider him a possibility for the outfield, since Bell has added so much muscle weight since moving to first. But Huntington noted that this has actually helped him.
“Actually, he’s moving as well athletically as he has since the knee injury,” Huntington said, referencing Bell’s injury that caused him to miss most of the 2012 season. “So he’s moving very well. Again, our focus is at first base, but the knowledge that he grew up an outfielder, and the knowledge that athletically he’s as sound as he’s been since the knee injury, there always could be that in our back pocket if need be.”
The outfield could be a possibility for Bell, but only if Gregory Polanco or Starling Marte go down for an extended period of time. First base seems more likely for his eventual debut, and it’s where he will end up for the long-term. The only question is when? If Jaso keeps playing this well, the Pirates could take their time with Bell, giving him enough at-bats in Triple-A to make his transition to the majors a smooth one.