Last season, many speculated when the Pirates would call up Josh Bell. With the inconsistency in production from the lineup, it seemed like a no-brainer to call up their top hitting prospect to give the team a shot in the arm. Fans waited and waited, and finally, Bell was called up to the big leagues for a crucial home series versus the Chicago Cubs.
Clint Hurdle decided to keep his blue chipper in a pinch hit-only role for the entire series. In a critical spot in the 7th inning of the series opener with the Pirates down 4-3, Hurdle called upon Bell. Adding to the drama of the moment was the fact that he was facing who many fans consider to be public enemy number 1: Jake Arrieta. This was the same pitcher who decimated the Pirates in the NL Wildcard game the previous October. But unlike some of his teammates before him, Bell did not waver in the face of the reigning NL CY Young winner. Instead, Bell ripped a single to right center after showing the patience of a veteran hitter throughout the at-bat, not giving in to Arrieta’s tricks. He would eventually come and around score the game winning run on Gregory Polanco single in the 8-4 win.
The next night out, Bell would again come off the bench, this time topping his debut. Facing Adam Warren, the former second round pick busted the game open with a pinch-hit grand slam to give the Pirates a 6 run lead. He finished his first weekend in pro ball without being retired in three plate appearances, walking in his only at-bat in the last game before the All-Star break.
Bell would remain with the club for the first series after the break, but was sent back down to AAA, a surprising move given the fact the Pirates could have used his bat in the majors. When he finally was called back up in late August, the club was pretty much out of the playoff race. Though he had his moments of brilliance, Bell did look more like a rookie in his second stint with the team. He ended the season hitting .273 with 3 home runs and 18 RBI, splitting time between first base and right field.
Entering this season, the Pirates are looking for big things from Bell in his first full season in the major leagues. Over the offseason he had transformed his body, dropping 24 pounds off of his 248 pound frame from the previous year. However, Bell underwent knee surgery shortly after starting workouts this week in Bradenton. The surgery on his left knee was to clean up loose particles, his 3rd on this knee. Currently, he is set to miss two to four weeks while recovering from the surgery. Though it may just be a minor precautionary procedure, Bell has dealt with recurring knee injuries through much of his career in the Pirates system. Despite it only being Spring Training, the 24-year old would benefit from as many reps as possible at first base.
The big question entering this season is whether Bell will see the majority of reps at first base. Last season, John Jaso started 99 games at first after converting to the position. He switched from catcher due to recurring concussions and other injuries. Remarkably, Jaso only committed 5 errors in the entire season, quite a feat for a player at a new position. After hitting .304 over the first 2 months of the season, he cooled down to finish the year .268 with 8 home runs and 42 RBI. Signed for his ability to get on base, Jaso ended with a .353 OBP.
David Freese also saw a share of the reps at first base, starting 27 games. The former Cardinal split time between there and his natural position third base, where he started 71 games in place of Jung-ho Kang. Bell started 19 games at first and recorded 3 errors, the same number Freese had.
For the Pirates to actually contend in 2017, they need to have Bell in the lineup as much as possible. The fact that he is a switch hitter brings versatility in the order that was lost when Neil Walker was shipped to New York. He has power to all fields along with some of the best plate discipline I have seen from a player fresh up from the minors. Yes, he is still very raw at first base, which had a lot to do with him being sent back down following his short stay with the club in July. Bell is going to have the growing pains at the position like all young players do. There will be errors, but here is the thing, not to long ago the Pirates did win 98 games with a first basemen who committed 23 errors.
Granted, Bell is not as bad of fielder as Pedro Alvarez was, but Hurdle cannot hold back the youngster just because he lacks experience at the position. The Pirates need his bat in the lineup. They will not contend if Jaso is being trotted out for even remotely as many games as last year. To be honest, I have never been a real fan since they signed him last winter. Jaso hits in spurts and really doesn’t bring any sizzle into the lineup outside of occasionally getting on base. Freese is even a better option than him, though we will mainly see him share time with Kang.
Bell should hit in the mid-teens of home runs in his first full season in the majors. The Pirates need that type of home run threat from the first base position. That is what I think of when I think first basemen in the show: a strong kid who can hit the long ball. Even with all his faults, I still loved seeing Alvarez smack home runs with ease. Now with Bell, the Pirates have the chance to not only have a home run hitter at the position, but a player who could develop into one of the best hitters in the National League.
Whether they end up contending or not in 2017, having Josh Bell get the majority of the starts at first base will go a long way in his development as not only a fielder, but as a hitter in this league. Hopefully the Pirates keep this future star on the path to greatness.