It’s difficult for any outfield prospect in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ organization to see a short-term or long-term future in the majors in Pittsburgh. The current outfield consists of Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco, and that group will be together for at least four more years, including the current season. It’s because of that outfield talent that the Pirates moved Josh Bell to first base over the off-season. Prior to that, Bell didn’t have a good path to the majors, falling behind all three present options defensively.
There is definitely a long-term need at first base in Pittsburgh. Pedro Alvarez is currently playing the position, but is only under control through the 2016 season. The move for Bell made all the sense in the world from a need standpoint, but also from a physical standpoint. He dealt with a knee injury in 2012, then slumped at the end of the 2014 season, possibly due to fatigue. The move from the outfield to first base should keep Bell fresh throughout the year, allowing his bat to play up all season.
The bat has been strong so far this year in Altoona, with Bell following up on his strong year in Bradenton last season. He hasn’t shown a lot of home run power, but there is little reason to doubt his power potential at this point. The bat is obviously going to be the key aspect of his game, especially with the move to first base, but learning the actual position is going to be just as important this year.
I’ve been watching Bell at first base since back in January, when he came down to Bradenton for some early workouts. Between that time, his time in Spring Training, and the time I saw him in Altoona, he has shown some improvements. As expected, he’s still a bit raw at the position. He often will stand on the back of the bag in a crouching motion (as seen in the picture above), and doesn’t often put himself in position to stretch out and make a play. That could come with more experience.
One area where Bell has been impressive lately has been with picks on balls in the dirt. He worked with Kevin Young on that a few weeks ago, and was tested during the games that weekend against Akron, making some strong plays in the process.
“It’s all timing,” Bell said on the picks. “Just trying to find my footing over there, and be ready to stretch at the right time, and to go ahead and reach for the ball at the right time. It’s all timing, and that’s what I’m trying to get better at.”
Young has been working with Bell since Spring Training, and got a chance to work with him for a few days in Altoona while he was touring the Pirates’ minor league system. The former Pirates’ first baseman has been impressed by the glove work so far from Bell.
“Josh has a more difficult situation adapting, because he’s coming from the outfield,” Young said. “So the speed of the game really picks up there. We’ve gotten to the point where he’s doing some quality things with his glove.”
That move from the outfield gives Bell a bigger challenge than someone like Pedro Alvarez moving to the other side of the infield. He has to be involved on more plays, and the game speed is quicker. Bell said that the move to first base put a lot more on his to-do list when preparing for his daily routine.
“It’s a lot quicker over there,” Bell said. “A little bit quicker reaction times. For the most part it’s no different than hitting. Just pick up the spin of the ball, try to project where it’s going, and then get my feet in the right position. As time goes on, I feel like I’m getting better and better at that.”
Bell seems to be getting comfortable with his range at the new position, as he laid out a few times on balls to his right in the Akron series a few weeks ago. He didn’t make the play on the harder hit balls, showing that his reaction times still need some improving.
The move to first base is still a work in progress, as would be expected from someone who has been playing the position for less than a year. There are some things Bell needs to work on, such as his footwork around the bag, and getting adjusted to the quicker reactions. He’s showing some very encouraging signs in other areas, primarily with the glove work on balls in the dirt. Bell has plenty of time to work on his defense at first, since he won’t be needed until the middle of the 2016 season at the earliest, if not later, depending on how Alvarez performs. With the upside of his bat, he doesn’t necessarily need to be a Gold Glove first baseman. He just needs to be able to handle the position without being a liability, and so far he’s looking like he could easily handle that.