It’s OK. Josh Bell’s knee is going to be OK. He said so Monday when he got to camp. Anybody need another brown paper bag to breathe into? Breathe in, breathe out.
I know it’s his third surgery on the knee, but the very, very safe money is on him being ready for Boston. I’m sure it’s perfectly fine that he ripped the meniscus, needed platelet-rich plasma injected into his knee, and now has a cleanup procedure on the same knee.
But let’s do a little fear mongering and say Bell isn’t going to be ready Opening Day. After all, fear mongering is popular. It sells. It’s going to be the cornerstone of my presidential run in 2020.
First base has been a black hole for the Bucs ever since PNC Park opened. Since 2001, there have 232 individual seasons across baseball where a first baseman has been worth at least 2 fWAR. The Pirates have done it once: 2009 when Garrett Jones posted 2.7 WAR. To be fair, 53 of his 82 starts that year were as an outfielder.
Even during the Bucs’ three year playoff run, they won in spite of their lack of production from the position most synonymous with offense.
Jones (-0.2 WAR) could not build off of a 27 home run season a year prior, resulting in an August deal for Justin Morneau, who didn’t do much either (-0.1 WAR). Gaby Sanchez (1.0 WAR) did have a nice year, though.
First base was worth 0.7 wins that year. Clint Barmes was worth 0.7 wins.
Andrew Lambo (0.1 WAR) came into Bradenton as the clear favorite to start at first, but a horrid spring resulted in him being optioned in favor of Travis Ishikawa. Ishikawa (0 WAR) was DFA’d in April after the Bucs brought in Ike Davis (0.1 WAR), who gave a slightly above-average stick to go with subpar glove work. Sanchez (0 WAR) hit a measly .229 in the other half of the platoon.
First base was worth 0.2 wins that year. Gerrit Cole’s bat and glove were valued at 0.3 wins.
Pedro Alvarez (0.2 WAR) may have lead the team with 27 homers, but his 23 errors and -13 DRS made even the most diehard of baseball traditionalists consider adopting the DH in the National League. Michael Morse (0.1 WAR) got some garbage time after Corey Hart crashed and burned (-0.4 fWAR).
Looking past the negligible contributions by Sean Rodriguez and Aramis Ramirez, first base was below replacement in 2015. Brent Morel, who struck out three out of his seven plate appearances that year, was worth 0.1 wins.
So first base has been awful, and for the Pirates to be competitive again, it needs to get less awful. Bell is the painfully obvious answer, but he is still just a rookie (technically. He loses that status with one more at-bat. It’s a very loose “technically,” like how I can still “technically” get responses from my love letters to Anna Kendrick). A rookie with a knee that has needed surgery three times already.
Is that enough to make first base an area of concern? Not necessarily. I guess I need to parrot the obligatory “Josh Bell is the future” comment, and while I believe that’s true, it’s not Bell or bust anymore. There’s some depth at the position.
And yes, by depth, I could also talk about David Freese, but I’m done parroting stuff this week. Freese will most likely post similar numbers to last year. Jaso could be better than he was in 2016.
Jaso played in a career high 132 games last year. He hadn’t suited up that many times since he was 26 (109 games in 2010). Sure, he was catching back then, but seven years of MLB service time can wear you down. His body probably isn’t built for 132 games anymore. Asking for 432 plate appearances was probably asking too much from him. It’s twice as many as he had in 2015.
He had a 131 wRC+ in April of last year. It dipped to 112 in May, 73 in June and 42 in July. He was demoted to bench duty in August, and responded by hitting .314 with a 168 wRC+ over 44 plate appearances. In September/October, he held steady, posting .302 and 163 marks in the same categories in 60 plate appearances 104 plate appearances may not be the biggest sample to go off of, but there is a clear trend in play.
The quality of the balls hit improved. In August, September and October, he had 21 line drives and only 11 balls Fangraphs called soft-contact. That’s 20.2% and 10.6%. In the other months, he hit line drives at a 13.1% clip and made soft contact in 18.9% of his plate appearances. Those improved struck balls coincided with more walks, drawing a free pass 16 times those last two months.
I also believe that Jaso is going to benefit from a second offseason in the Pirates’ system. Plenty of players have had career years after a second winter with the Bucs in recent years.
Russell Martin went from a .226/.327/.377 slash line in 2013 to .290/.402/.430 after his second offseason with the club. Travis Snider went from slashing .215/.281/.333 with five homers in 2013 to .264/.338/.438 with 13 taters in 2014. Sean Rodriguez’s .246/.281/.362 slash line in 2015 to .270/.349/.510 in 2016 with 18 dingers.
Jaso may not have raw power like those other three, but they all enjoyed a bump in their walk rates. Jaso drew free passes at a below career average last season, so he’s a prime candidate to emulate them, even if he just goes back to his traditional 12.2% average.
I’m not saying Jaso will be as good as Bell or even Freese in 2017, but he could and should have a solid season. If Bell does miss Opening Day or needs to be shelved later in the year, Jaso could catch people off guard.