Around the Horn: Bell needs to regain 1B power

Bucs' first baseman improved in 2018 but HRs, slugging dipped

January 16th, 2019

With Spring Training approaching, it's time for an in-depth look at the Pirates' roster. This is the fourth part of a series checking in on their current and future options at each position. Next up: first base.

Big question: What kind of hitter is Josh Bell going to be?

In some ways, Bell, 26, is coming off a better season than he was this time last year. The switch-hitter's OPS+ climbed from 109 in 2017 to 111 last year, and his wRC+ ticked up from 108 to 112. His batting average increased slightly and his on-base percentage jumped 23 points. He walked more often and struck out less.

That's all good, right?

The problem was Bell's power outage. He went from 26 homers to 12, from a .466 slugging percentage to .411. His RBI total dropped from 90 to 62. He was the Pirates' everyday cleanup hitter for more than two months, but he returned to that spot only sporadically toward the end of the season.

Manager Clint Hurdle has said he views Bell as a middle-of-the-order run producer. General manager Neal Huntington has said the Pirates believe Bell will be a "good hitter with power." For Pittsburgh's lineup to be more productive this year, Bell is going to have to prove them both right.

The starter: Bell

Bell will get a chance to work with new hitting coaches this spring, as the Pirates brought in Rick Eckstein and assistant hitting coach Jacob Cruz over the winter. They should probably start with where Bell finished last season. After a brief benching in early September, he slashed .301/.427/.534 with more walks than strikeouts, four homers and five doubles -- looking like that "good hitter with power" -- in 89 plate appearances over his last 21 games.

This is true for every hitter, including Bell: It's critical to get ahead in the count. He hit .297 with a .971 OPS when ahead in the count last year and .209 with a .508 OPS when behind. His impressive hand-eye coordination allows him to make contact with pitches he probably shouldn't be able to reach, but that's not an ideal way to make the kind of solid contact that leads to homers and extra-base hits.

Durability isn't a concern with Bell, as he's only been on the disabled list once since making his Major League debut in 2016. Defense remains an issue, however. The former Minor League outfielder has improved over the past few years, but he still graded out as the Majors' worst regular first baseman last season according to the SABR Defensive Index.

Backups: , ,

Bell has started 274 games at first base over the past two years, so there shouldn't be a ton of playing time to go around here. The Pirates might even be able to get by without a dedicated backup at first.

Chisenhall can play all over the outfield and both corner-infield spots, and he'll be free to move around as a super-utility man after returns as the everyday right fielder. Cervelli occasionally could move out from behind the plate to play first base, as he did five times last season.

The wild card here is Osuna, who has yet to see his Triple-A/Spring Training success translate into Major League production. The 26-year-old is a smooth defender at first base, but he's hit just .231 with a .681 OPS in 338 plate appearances for Pittsburgh. He can play some outfield despite lacking the ideal range to do so, and he's picked up a third baseman's glove over the past few years. Will there be room for him on the roster?

In the pipeline: Will Craig

Bell is under club control through the 2022 season, so the job remains his. But Craig, the Pirates' first-round Draft pick in 2016, will be in big league Spring Training for the first time next month.

The 24-year-old should spend the year with Triple-A Indianapolis after hitting 20 homers and driving in 102 runs last season for Double-A Altoona. That will put Pittsburgh's No. 16 prospect in line for a big league debut in September or, more likely, in 2020. Craig would have to prove himself in Triple-A and the Majors to displace Bell, but he's getting closer to becoming a realistic option.

Drafted as a third baseman but now locked in at first, Craig saw his average (.248) and on-base percentage (.321) drop last season but made up for it with newfound power. Craig went deep 20 times in 132 games last year after hitting only eight homers in his first 816 professional plate appearances. He finished the year with an encouraging Arizona Fall League stint, slashing .304/.378/.570 with six homers in 90 plate appearances.

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