Bucco’s Cove has been on an impromptu hiatus for long enough to be considered on the verge of being defunct, but fear not, loyal readers. This blog is back in the Bucco business. After a startlingly quiet offseason for both the Pirates and the league as a whole, Spring Training is in full swing, the United States has finally asserted dominance in the sport they invented (or at least popularized), and we’re getting tantalizingly close to Opening Day. This is the first in a multi-part series in which I’ll try to address most of the interesting storylines for the Pirates this year. So let’s get into it.
Josh Bell’s name has been tossed about for several years now as he’s climbed his way through the minors. We got our first taste of him last year when he was called up for a midseason series against the Cubs in which he promptly got on base seemingly every time he stepped to the plate. I remember the series distinctly because I was making my annual trip to Pittsburgh to catch some games with my old man and some of my friends. When Bell came up against Arrieta that Friday night, he ripped the first pitch he saw for his first career hit while my dad and I were at a gas station in Murrysville listening on the radio. It was exciting, to say the least. The grand slam he smashed the next night to put the Cubs away for good was one of the coolest things I’ve seen live at a ballpark. This moment sticks out in my mind along with those two straight extra inning wins against the Cardinals and the Cuuuuuueeeee-ttttttoooooooooo Wild Card game as some of the highlights of the last few years.
So where does this promising young chap go from here? Obviously first base has been a gaping hole for the Pirates in recent seasons. The spinning top of defense-first players, guys converted from other positions, platoon partners, and Pedro Alvarez’s blurry facsimile of a Major League-caliber defender has never been satisfying in the way that having a strong defender and big bat at first can be. Not every team can have an Anthony Rizzo or a Paul Goldschmidt despite their aspirations, but the Pirates might have found their guy in Bell.
The converted outfielder already clearly has the bat and patience at the plate despite only being 24. This full season of playing time should get him on track to really ascend into the upper echelon of hitters in the coming seasons, and his athleticism as a converted outfielder should help him adjust defensively to first base. I’m not expecting Bell to win a Gold Glove this year, or even be as good defensively as John Jaso, but letting him get his hacks in a year will be crucial to helping him develop into his full potential.
Bell is going to be a key cog in the lineup this year despite all the uncertainty. Treading water offensively at first base is no longer an option in a division with the juggernaut Cubs, and a highly competitive National League will take no prisoners in the Wild Card race. There are several questions when it comes to the lineup, McCutchen’s potential resurgence being chief among them, but right up there is whether Josh Bell can show up and make an immediate impact by getting on base and driving in runs (assuming he doesn’t eventually move up near the top of the lineup, which is quite possible if he can sustain some of the momentum he has from mashing his way through the minors).
As prospect is just a prospect until they’re a player, though. Promise doesn’t get much play unless you deliver. This is the key for the Pirates this year as a whole — converting prospects to Major League players and potentially even stars. If Bell steps up and hits 20 HR and gets on based at a .370 clip, that would justify the prospect status. Conversely, defensive miscues and laggard stats at the plate could sink his season quite rapidly, given the other options the Pirates have to man the alpha bag and their potential for qualifying for the playoffs given a few sticks falling favorably.
Josh Bell has a big opportunity to make a splash in his first full year in the Majors. Major League baseball has been trending toward younger and younger players being Major-League ready immediately upon entering the league, with some stats showing players simply declining as they get older from the time they enter the league. This obviously isn’t the case for everyone, but Josh Bell making an immediate impact and being the manifestation of some baseball maxim about it being a young man’s game would go a long way to helping the Pirates get back into playoff contention.