PITTSBURGH -- It's nearly 2018, and it's still unclear if the Pirates view next year as a chance to contend or another bridge to a brighter future. Either way, Josh Bell might be the most important player in Pittsburgh's lineup.
Bell is the Bucs' long-awaited first baseman of the present and future. He demonstrated his potential last season, finishing third in the National League Rookie of the Year Award voting. But he was not satisfied with his rookie results, eyeing more consistency on the offensive side and marked improvements defensively.
Bell finished his first full season with a .255/.334/.466 slash line, 26 homers, 90 RBIs and six Defensive Runs Saved. The Pirates didn't necessarily anticipate that kind of immediate power at the plate or proficiency at first base. Neither did Bell, but he is expecting more out of himself in the future.
"I definitely didn't think I was going to hit 20-plus homers, but I also thought I was going to hit .300," Bell said at the end of the season. "We'll see what I can do next year."
As the Pirates consider trading Andrew McCutchen, or at least losing him to free agency after next season, Bell is a critical cog in their plan moving forward. He quickly became manager Clint Hurdle's regular cleanup hitter. Could Bell become the No. 3 hitter before long?
And in the bigger picture, could Bell soon succeed McCutchen as the face of the franchise?
"Those are pretty big shoes to fill," Bell said. "Being a face of a franchise is a huge honor, but I feel like I watch him, then I watch the other faces of their franchises, you go into a place and you know people. You know [Clayton] Kershaw for the Dodgers. You know Kristopher Bryant and [Anthony] Rizzo. … I can only imagine what that entails, having a large majority of the jerseys in the stands [be yours]. It's cool. Definitely something I aspire to."
But first, Bell aspires toward a steadier season at the plate. He struggled through May (.680 OPS) and slowed down in September (.639 OPS), but he posted an OPS higher than .815 in every other month. From June 2-Aug. 30, he slashed .288/.364/.532 with 14 homers in 78 games -- numbers that may be more representative of his ability.
Though he developed into a nine-inning defender by midseason, Bell also hopes to improve at first base. Specifically, he will tweak his arm angle to cut down on throwing errors.
The Pirates haven't had a first baseman start on consecutive Opening Days since David LaRoche did so from 2007-09. Bell should put an end to that carousel of inconsistency in Detroit on March 29 -- and his tenure should last long after that.
"One of the more interesting players I've ever come across, very reflective with a different optic and a different lens than a lot of players I've ever had," Hurdle said. "Just off the charts as far as awareness of his game."