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Bell's pop could bolster offense all season

First baseman is right at home in Buc's cleanup spot
MLB.com @adamdberry

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Pirates manager Clint Hurdle hasn't settled on a lineup yet, but he has a few ideas.

He knows shortstop Jordy Mercer will hit eighth. The pitcher will bat ninth, albeit not when the Bucs begin the season with a designated hitter in Detroit on March 29. And Hurdle said he has first baseman Josh Bell "anchored" in the cleanup spot, where he spent most of his solid rookie season.

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BRADENTON, Fla. -- Pirates manager Clint Hurdle hasn't settled on a lineup yet, but he has a few ideas.

He knows shortstop Jordy Mercer will hit eighth. The pitcher will bat ninth, albeit not when the Bucs begin the season with a designated hitter in Detroit on March 29. And Hurdle said he has first baseman Josh Bell "anchored" in the cleanup spot, where he spent most of his solid rookie season.

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That's just fine with Bell, who has batted fourth in every game he's played this spring.

"I definitely like hitting fourth. I definitely like solidifying myself there," he said after hitting a home run to center field in the Pirates' 11-8 win over the Twins at LECOM Park on Monday. "It's nice going to the field and knowing where you're going to hit. … It's nice knowing that I'm going to be there, and hopefully it stays that way."

Hurdle has plenty of other factors to consider. Adam Frazier will probably hit leadoff whenever he plays, but he's not an everyday starter at any one position. Josh Harrison likely will hit either first or second, as is his preference. Gregory Polanco or Starling Marte could hit third, and it might depend on who's leading off considering Frazier and Polanco are lefties while Harrison and Marte are right-handed hitters.

It's unclear how Hurdle will deploy catcher Francisco Cervelli and third baseman Colin Moran lower in the order. Corey Dickerson has shown middle-of-the-order power, but he spent most of last season batting first or second with the Rays. But he doesn't have to worry about Mercer in the eight hole or Bell batting cleanup.

"There's still some moving pieces. I think we've got some options, and I think it's going to be stretched out better than it was at any time last year from top to bottom," Hurdle said. "I believe it's going to be a very good lineup that's going to have some depth to it, some length."

Last season, the Pirates ranked 28th in the Majors in OPS and runs, 29th in home runs and 22nd in stolen bases. Harrison believes this year's group, if healthy, can significantly improve on those numbers.

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"With everybody being healthy, it's a lineup from top to bottom that can do a lot of different things that can impact the game on the bases, driving guys in," Harrison said. "And we've got some guys that can hit it out of the park as well."

One of those guys is Bell, who went deep 26 times last season. That level of success seemed unlikely as Bell endured a brutal spring in 2017 (when he put up a .409 OPS) following February knee surgery, then struggled through May (.680 OPS). This time last spring, Hurdle joked, Bell was getting more at-bats in Minor League games at Pirate City than with the Pirates.

Last year, he'd take nine at-bats a day in an effort to get up to speed. This spring, Bell said, has been "100 percent" better.

With a little help from Moran, Bell altered his pregame routine. His early work with hitting coach Jeff Branson is more game-like, as he's trying to barrel up hard overhand pitches from a shorter distance instead of soft tosses. That helps him prepare for higher-velocity pitches, making it easier to adjust in games.

A similar routine benefited Bell when he first reached Triple-A in 2015, but he got away from it the last two years. Moran reintroduced the idea, and it seems to be working again for Pittsburgh's cleanup hitter.

"It was something that I've done in the past, and will continue to do in the future," Bell said.

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.

Pittsburgh Pirates, Josh Bell