By Rich Arleo
CBS Local Sports, in our 30 Players 30 Days spring training feature, profiles one young player from each Major League Baseball team leading up to opening day.
2016 season (Minors): 114 G, 421 AB, .295 BA, 14 HR, 60 RBI, 3 SB, .850 OPS
2016 season (Majors): 45 G, 128 AB, .273 BA, 3 HR, 19 RBI, 0 SB, .775 OPS
Josh Bell has been surrounded by hype ever since the Pirates drafted him in the second round of the 2011 MLB Draft and gave him a second-round record $5 million to convince him to forego his college commitment. Bell’s track to the bigs hasn’t necessarily been an express train, but after impressing in a short stint with the Pirates last year he seems ready to stick for a full rookie season in Pittsburgh.
Joining the organization as an outfielder, Bell hit his first home run as a 19-year-old and had 13 homers, 76 RBIs and a .279/.353/.453 line in his first full pro season at Class A in ‘13. With Andrew McCutchen locked into the outfield and top prospects Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte on their way to form the Pirates’ superb outfield we now see today, Bell’s path to the Majors wasn’t clear. In ‘14, the team decided to move Bell to first base, and that’s where he played last season and where he is expected to start in ‘17.
Bell’s defense is still under construction, but that’s not what he’s known for and probably won’t ever be. Where Bell shines is at the plate, and the 24-year-old has been able to show progress offensively at every level. In 487 Minor League games over five seasons, Bell hit .303/.373/.454 with 44 homers, 111 doubles and 285 RBIs.
The power was always expected to be a work in progress with Bell as he grew in the organization, and it really took a step forward last year with his Minor League-best 14 homers for Triple-A Indianapolis. For someone his size (6-foot-2, 240 pounds) Bell isn’t your typical swing-and-miss slugging first baseman. Bell struck out just 19 times in 152 plate appearances last year, good for a K% of 12.5 that would have lead the league among first baseman last year had he had enough plate appearances to qualify.
Bell showed incredible plate discipline throughout the Minor Leagues and it was no different in his debut in the bigs. If qualified, his 24.8 O-Swing% (outside-swing percentage), 7.6 SwStr% (swinging-strike percentage) and 82.9 Contact% would all have been top six among first basemen in ‘16.
Spring Training hasn’t been kind to Bell early on, and in his first 17 at-bats he managed just one hit. Bell has the rare rookie luxury of not having to battle for a spot in the starting lineup. Barring an injury, he will begin the year as the team’s starting first baseman. His aforementioned defensive woes are worth monitoring, but the Pirates will deal with it — as long as things don’t get out of control — in order to get his bat in the lineup. Some starts here and there in the outfield are also possible.
Aside from the defense, the one other factor that could cut into his playing time is his ability (or lack thereof) to hit left-handers consistently. He went 4-for-19 (.211) against them with the Pirates and hit .267 vs. southpaws at Triple-A last year. Despite that, Bell showed the ability to go the other way against shifts last year and one look at his spray chart shows his propensity to hit to all fields. If he can play passable defensively and improve vs. left-handers, the Pirates will have no reason not to plug him into their lineup every day this season.
Rich Arleo is a freelance sports writer and editor who covers Major League Baseball and fantasy sports. You can follow him on Twitter, @Rarleo.