Pirates' Bell a successful switch story
Pittsburgh's No. 3 prospect proves a position change can quicken path
By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com
BRADENTON, Florida -- Prospect writers might want a heads-up: Josh Bell's parents read a lot about their son.
During the 2014 season -- Bell's third in pro ball -- his father, Earnest, informed him that he might be in line for a move from the outfield to first base, based solely on what he'd read about his son's defense and the state of the Pirates system. That August, while playing for Double-A Altoona, Bell met with director of player development Larry Broadway for his regularly scheduled exit interview to prepare for the offseason when the news became official. He'd be headed to the Arizona Fall League, and he'd be bringing a first baseman's mitt with him.
"I think my dad was reading articles and stuff like that," said Bell, the Pirates' No. 3 prospect. "I think at the time Pedro [Alvarez] was making that same move, too, that move [from third] to first base. It's something that I'm always talking to my dad about, different things that could benefit my game. So he was saying, 'Hey, this offsesason, this might be something you need to work on.'
"[Those articles are] things that I try to stay away from. I feel like analysts knew before the team told me. I remember going to the meeting and Broadway and said, 'I'm sure you already know ... "
News of Bell's move from the grass to the dirt is three years old, but it feels especially notable this spring, likely the 24-year-old's last as a prospect. The favorite to be the Pirates' Opening Day first baseman, Bell and his story is one that should give hope to positionally blocked prospects everywhere.
According to Broadway, the reason the club approached Bell about the move wasn't so much about his defensive acumen as it was the outfield logjam the Bucs would encounter should the 2011 second-round pick stick there.
"Well, just looking at our outfield and how it projected to be and looking at first base, we thought there would be a hole there," Broadway said. "It seemed like it would be a good fit."
At that point, Gregory Polanco was in the midst of a 2014 rookie season that solidified him as the Pirates' long-term right fielder. With 2013 National League MVP Andrew McCutchen and future Gold Glover Starling Marte also in the mix, Pittsburgh had three potential star outfielders under team control for the foreseeable future.
Bell pressed the issue by batting .335/.384/.502 with 33 extra-base hits in 84 games in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, showing he could be ready for a quick ascent. The Bucs pushed the then-21-year-old to Double-A in July, but given that he began the season three levels away from The Show, he didn't expect a discussion about clearing his path to come so soon.
"I was fresh out of the Florida State League, so I was surprised it was going to happen that early because I was thinking, 'Nah, you never know what's going to happen years from now,'" Bell said. "A lot of guys get traded in that situation. But for me to just move a position and still have right field in the back of my head while I learn first base, I thought hopefully I could still help the team win."
The reports from the AFL weren't very good as the 6-foot-2, 230-pound infield newcomer tried to find his footing. He committed five errors in his first 11 games at first base and struggled to learn the positioning that can't be measured by traditional statistics. That was OK for the Pirates -- they sent him to the Fall League to begin what they imagined would be a long-term project.
"Everything," Broadway said when asked what Bell needed to learn. "Catching a ground ball. The throws are different. Game IQ. Knowing where to be. Quickness. The whole gambit. The standard was very, very low at the start, and now he's very, very functional."
Bell bought in, knowing the work it would take if he was going to stick on the dirt.
"The toughest part, I guess, was the reaction time, having balls on you so quickly," he said. "Over a long range of repetitions, now it's a lot easier to get the ball in the glove and now it's about getting the ball on its way to second base for double plays. Just knowing where I need to be. That comes with reps."
Meanwhile, his bat continued to play at all levels. Last season, the switch-hitter put up a .295/.382/.468 line with 12 homers, four triples and 23 doubles in 114 games at Triple-A Indianapolis, a performance that earned spots on the International League's midseason and postseason All-Star teams. With the offense there and the glove looking serviceable, the Bucs called up Bell on July 8 -- he collected a pinch-hit single in his first and only at-bat of the night against the Cubs -- for a four-game stint and brought him back for a longer look toward the end of August.
But it wasn't that first taste of the Majors, made possible by the move to first, that made Bell think of the position switch in terms of being a success. It was when he could say he was picking up his teammates, like Indianapolis shortstop Gift Ngoepe, who is considered an impressive defender at a premium position.
"I had a lot of fun playing with Gift," Bell said. "You get a different angle of the game when you're playing the infield, so I feel like seeing plays and watching Gift at shortstop, making picks and stuff like that when he makes a good play, those are the little subtleties of the game that keep a smile on my face."
Of course, the story can only be considered a true success if Bell hits enough in the Majors to meet the higher offensive standard at first base. He put together a .273/.368/.406 line with three homers and an impressive 19/21 K/BB ratio in 152 plate appearances with big club, resulting in an above-average 113 wRC+. With the Opening Day spot his for the taking, Bell said adding some more punch has been on his mind.
"That's another conversation I have with my dad and hitting coach and some of the guys here," he said. "Last year, especially, and then the year before when I started doing the leg kick to add power to my game. I had a conversation with [teammate] Ed Easley last year, who said it would be more impressive for me to hit .250 with 25 [homers] than it would be to hit .330 with three as a first baseman. That's what's going to help the team win over the course of 162 games, so that's in the back of my head as well."
If he can do that, the Pirates could handle Bell -- who needs only two Major League at-bats to lose his prospect status -- being just average at first base in his first full season at the highest level. He didn't meet that standard in 2016 as he was worth minus-3 Defensive Runs Saved in 150 1/3 innings at first base in the Majors. Bell is far from a finished product, though and he still has many believers, including Broadway and MLB Pipeline, which named Bell its No. 2 first base and No. 27 overall prospect, despite giving him a 45 for his fielding tool on the 20-80 scouting scale.
There's little doubt Bell would be expected to be a major contributor in Pittsburgh this year if not for the position change. That's a story from which blocked prospects like shortstop-turned-second baseman Ozzie Albies, first baseman-turned-maybe-outfielder Cody Bellinger and countless others can gain hope. Bell's advice for those who might follow in his shoes is simple.
"Just keep an open mind," he said. "It's cool to see the game from different angles. I'd say if you ever get the opportunity to go take balls at shortstop, go take balls at third base, do it just one day a month even. Just to get a clear and different view of the game because I think it really simplifies things."