Pirates practicing patience with powerful Bell

No. 3 prospect's pop hasn't translated into game action, but Bucs believe it will

January 19th, 2016

BRADENTON, Fla. -- The sights and sounds produced by Josh Bell last week at Pirate City could go a long way toward easing Pittsburgh's concern about the Pirates' first baseman of the future.

Start with the sounds, particularly those of baseballs pounding off Pirate City's batting cage roof and rolling down to the ground, or perhaps that of Bell smacking line drives into the high left-field fence.

The Bucs' No. 3 prospect always has boasted impressive offensive numbers, but he's hit only 30 homers in four Minor League seasons. It's not that Bell's bat is lacking pop -- just watch (or listen to) him take batting practice -- he just hasn't translated his raw power into game action. The Pirates believe he will, in time.

"He is, in our minds, the classic power-comes-as-he-matures kind of guy," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said last week as Bell was hitting on a back field at Pirate City. "We're working to be as patient as we can to let him develop naturally. He does a lot of things that we like."

Last year, the 23-year-old hit .317 with a .393 on-base percentage between Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis. He walked as often as he struck out and put up better numbers in 35 games for Indianapolis -- where he will likely spend most of this year -- than he did for Altoona.

The Pirates repeatedly have emphasized their desire to develop "good hitters with power" rather than simply "good power hitters," believing power will come naturally with maturity and experience. Huntington believes a generation of sluggers fueled by performance-enhancing substances may have altered fans' expectations for future middle-of-the-order hitters like Bell.

"Pre-artificial enhancements, there was a natural maturation process to most power hitters. Most natural power hitters didn't hit 30 home runs in the Minor Leagues," Huntington said. "Our eyes are skewed based on what we've seen over the last 15 or 20 years. There is some recurrence of what worked in the '80s and what worked in the early '90s working again as the game gets back to baseball.

"In our mind, Josh is the guy who projects to mature into his power."

Bell is gaining more confidence in his new mechanics. The switch-hitter has been more effective from the left side, batting .334 with a .920 OPS last season, but struggled by comparison (.275 average, .632 OPS) as a right-handed hitter. Toward the middle of last season, he started trusting the new leg kick he incorporated into his swing -- something he showed off by ripping a home run in the All-Star Futures Game in Cincinnati.

"I'm just trying to add to different aspects of my game when it comes to driving the ball just a tad bit more than I have in the past," Bell said at the Rookie Career Development Program. "If I can work on that in the offseason and show it next year, I think I'm going to be in a good spot."

That takes us to the sight of Bell last week at Pirate City, particularly the one of him working overtime at first base with special assistant Kevin Young. Bell is coming off his first full season as a first baseman, having played right field each of the previous three years, and he's still somewhat unpolished defensively.

But Bell is putting in the time and effort, trying to get more comfortable with his new position. The Pirates filled their immediate need at first base with John Jaso, another player learning the position, so Bell will have more time to refine his game in Triple-A.

"I feel good. I feel like I put in a lot of time this past offseason, through the year and this offseason," Bell said. "Going into Spring Training, I'm really confident in my ability and I'm really excited to go out and show my stuff."

If he does it well enough, the Pirates could see -- and hear from -- Bell quite a bit over the next few years in Pittsburgh.