It has been an up and down start to 2017, to say the least, for the Pittsburgh Pirates. After battling tooth and nail with the reigning AL East Champion Boston Red Sox and their current and former Cy Young-winning pitchers in defeat to start the year, the Bucs came home for their first series at PNC Park of the season and treated the fans to a sweep, washing out the lowly Atlanta Braves in some sloppy games. But things quickly went back downhill for the Pirates after they were swept by the youngest team in baseball, the Cincinnati Reds. It was a brutal series, with the offense only managing five runs the entire despite facing Rookie Davis and Amir Garrett, two rookies making only their second starts in the major leagues. They traveled back to Boston to complete their rain-shortened series only to blow a 3-1 lead in a late inning meltdown.
Obviously Pirates fans were not too optimistic heading into their Easter weekend series against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field, a place that has been a house of horrors for the club over the past few seasons. Things were especially ominous coming into this series considering the fact that they were facing the top three pitchers on the defending World Series Champions staff: Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester. Though they were countering with two of their best in Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow was due to make his second start of the season against Arrieta after being shelled by the Reds in just under two innings. I was probably in the vast majority of people who thought the Pirates wouldn’t win one game at Wrigley, let alone sweeping the series, after only winning once on the North Side of Chicago in 2016. Hopefully you didn’t run to your bookie anytime this series to place any bet on the Cubs because he would have cleaned up on your lack (deserved) of the faith in the Pirates. They were able to not only take the series, but sweep the defending World Champions on the road for the first time since 2014, capping one of the most memorable sports weekends in Pittsburgh so far in 2017 as the Penguins also took a 3-0 series lead over the Columbus Blue Jackets.
When you breakdown this sweep of the Cubs, there’s a lot of little details and moves that went a long way in deciding the outcome of this series. One of these moves was replacing Josh Bell in with John Jaso at first base in Saturday’s game, something that has become a trend of sorts in the first two weeks of the season. Why I bring this up is Clint Hurdle made the decision to take their young first baseman out of the game despite the fact that the Pirates were trailing 6-3 with the winds blowing out at Wrigley, an ideal time for someone with the type of power as Bell. However, the move would pay off as Jaso would make two outstanding plays at first that kept the Cubs at bay after the Pirates took the lead in the game off a Andrew McCutchen three run homer (who we were originally supposed to talk about today but his two homers in four games changed that). Though he didn’t help any at the plate in his two at-bats Saturday or in any game so far in 2017, is the defensive snubbing a smart move for the future of Bell?
In nine games this season, the switch hitter has started six games at first base. Of those six games, only twice was Bell left in for the entire game and not subbed for by Jaso or Phil Gosselin, who has played just over two innings at first this year. In the four games he was pulled early, the Pirates were either tied or trailing in the game. Ironically, in the games Bell was pulled from when the team was winning, the opponent was able to amount a comeback in the game and either hold on for the win (home opener vs Braves) or blow a lead (Thursday’s loss in Boston). I understand totally why Hurdle subs for defense purposes because he has done it for most of the time he has been the Pirates manager and it does work. But to sub out a young player more than half the time at a position where you are trying to get him to learn and get more comfortable at is almost downright insane. If you want Bell to be your future at first base he needs to play all nine innings at the position on a consistent basis. You can’t hinder his development in the field when Jaso’s defense really is not that special. His glove is a lot better now than Pedro Alvarez had at any point in his career with the Pirates, so I don’t understand the fear with leaving a young player in the lineup who has the ability to put the game out of reach. Believe it or not, Bell has yet to make an error in his 66 innings at first so far in 2017, as the rest of the team hasn’t look real clean with the glove. So in actuality Hurdle’s biggest problem on defense isn’t really even at first base right now.
Leaving Bell in for the entire game will also give him at least one more plate appearance for the game. Right now it has not been the best start to the season with the bat for the young switch hitter, who is just hitting only .156 with .219 slugging and only one run driven in. Sooner or later he is going to start hitting at the levels we saw last season, but you are not going to get that sooner if he continues to be shuffled out by the sixth or seventh. Granted, I don’t mind switching out Bell if the team is up a wide or comfortable margin in the game, but taking him out in close games where one swing of the bat can be the difference needs to stop. Just trust your young stud Hurdle; he can save your job in the long run.