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Monday, December 5, 2022

2016 First Base Recap: How Long Will the Josh Bell Experiment Last?

The Pirates have gone with a platoon approach to first base for many years, struggling to find answers for the position. With the outfield locked up for the long-term, they opted to move Josh Bell to the position last year, hoping that would provide the long-term solution. Bell was slated to arrive this year, and did so in the second half. However, the second half of the season left questions about how the Pirates would handle their first base position going forward.

The overall results from the first base spot weren’t bad. The Pirates had a 3.7 fWAR, which ranked 11th in the majors. They were 14th and 12th respectively in wOBA and wRC+. Those stats are a bit misleading though, since they include the total results of everyone playing the first base position, and the Pirates didn’t exactly have a regular first baseman.

The plan at the start of the year was to go with John Jaso as the primary guy against right-handers, with Michael Morse going up against lefties, and David Freese eventually taking over that role. Morse was quickly released after eight plate appearances, and Freese made the jump over after Jung Ho Kang returned, while still getting time at third base throughout the year.

Jaso started off strong, hitting for a .304/.369/.441 line in 180 plate appearances over the first two months of the season. This didn’t last, as he slumped in June and July to a .198/.291/.275 line in 148 plate appearances. His defense wasn’t great, but a big improvement over Josh Bell, who was putting up great offensive numbers in Indianapolis, but struggling defensively. Bell arrived for a series in July, putting up some impressive offensive numbers as a bat off the bench. By the middle of August, Jaso’s struggles led to Bell arriving and taking over the bulk of the first base duties.

Bell didn’t become an everyday first baseman though. After a few weeks in that role, he started switching back and forth between first base and right field. In his final 22 games, he was a right fielder 15 times, and a first baseman seven times. That includes his final nine starts in right field. The end of the season was probably due to Starling Marte being out, and Gregory Polanco missing some time. But before that, during the short time that Jung Ho Kang and Gregory Polanco were healthy at the same time, he received seven starts at first, and six in right field.

Meanwhile, Jaso revived his hitting, with a .307/.413/.568 line in 104 plate appearances over his final two months. He also started eight of the final nine games at first base for the Pirates, after making only about two or three starts a week prior to that, once Bell arrived.

David Freese also got playing time throughout the year. When he wasn’t filling in for Jung Ho Kang at third base, he was getting starts at first. He started eight games at first base in September, which was just one fewer than Bell started. And in the time when Kang and Polanco were healthy in September, Freese started six games at first, compared to seven for Bell (and four for Jaso).

The Pirates got some good offense from Bell, but poor defense. They got better defense from Jaso, but his offense was inconsistent, with the slump in the middle of the season. Freese had better defense than both, and offensively had a good start to the year, but saw his offense slump down the stretch.

The Future

You have to wonder if the Josh Bell experiment at first base is coming to an end, or being scaled back. I don’t know if I’d read much into the final ten games, since there were a lot of injuries to consider. But before the injury wave hit, Bell saw his playing time split between first base and right field. Granted, there were still injuries to consider at this point, but looking forward, I don’t think the Pirates will be able to play Bell at first base on a regular basis if they want to give playing time to Freese and Jaso.

Freese was extended and is under team control through the 2019 season, but he’s not going to get a lot of starts at third base. So I could see Bell making a few starts in the outfield each week, with the other starts coming at first base. You could probably get five starts a week like this for Bell, and four starts a week for Freese, but there would be no place for Jaso to play, which isn’t a long-term concern, as he’s only under contract through 2017.

In the long-term, you’d have to wonder how much Bell’s defense will impact his ability to stick at first. His bat looks like it belongs in the majors, but the defense is removing some value. This time last year, I was writing about how the Pirates got poor defense from Pedro Alvarez in the majors, and Bell in the minors. Alvarez went on to spend most of his time in 2016 as the DH in Baltimore. He saw an improvement of about ten defensive runs (as in, he didn’t have a chance to lose an extra ten defensive runs), which gave him an extra win in value. It could be a similar situation for Bell, where his defense removes a win from his offensive production.

There aren’t a lot of good replacement options in the minors. Jason Rogers was acquired last off-season, but also doesn’t have great defense, doesn’t have the bat that Bell has, and wasn’t really in the mix this year. Jose Osuna could reach the majors as a bench player, but he doesn’t have the bat that Bell has, and his defense isn’t good enough to make up for the difference. Edwin Espinal has some potential, but is another guy who doesn’t have great defense, and who can’t match Bell offensively.

The better first base options are in the lower levels, although they’re both playing third base at the moment. Will Craig, the first round pick in 2016, projects as a first baseman in the long-term. The Pirates will stick with him for as long as possible at third base, hoping he improves there. I talked with scouts who saw him play first base in college who said he would be fine at the position, and the Pirates had him getting some early work this off-season. I don’t know yet how much of an upgrade he’d be over Bell, but he’s got more offensive upside than the first three guys mentioned.

I think the best defender of the group could be Connor Joe, who is also currently playing third base, and also some outfield. Joe played first base in 2015, due to a back injury the year before. He looked promising at the position, showing some good range and athleticism. He struggled at third base this year, which is understandable, as he hadn’t played there since high school. Offensively, he had a strong second half, with an .814 OPS in the final three months. He carried his hitting over to the playoffs, and continued hitting the ball hard in instructs. He was hitting the ball hard the first two months of the year, but the stats didn’t match the production.

I’d give Joe less of a chance at sticking at third base than Craig, but he also has the corner outfield spots that he could move to before a move to first base is necessary. Although, in this system, first base might be more of a need than the outfield. Joe could be the best defender of this group, due to his athleticism, but would need to continue his strong hitting in order to be an option for first base in the long-term.

Of course, adding the designated hitter to the NL could solve a lot of problems at first base, with Bell taking over that role, Freese playing mostly first base with a spot start at third, and Jaso getting the extra time in 2017, along with a guy like Osuna or Joe taking over beyond that.

There’s also the possibility that Josh Bell could improve his defense going forward, since he’s only had two years at the position. This seems unlikely, at least in the sense that he’ll become a good defender, or a guy who won’t lose value due to his defense. But if he can improve to Jaso’s level, this becomes less of an issue, especially if his hitting continues to improve, and I don’t think we’ve seen the best offense from him yet.

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Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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Harry S

I think they should leave Bell at first base. The Pirates moved Adam Frazier all over the field, then started bouncing Josh between RF and 1B, with both having trouble. It’s hard enough adjusting to the majors let alone playing different positions every day. I don’t know what people are expecting from Bell after just over one season playing 1B.

DanielF

How bad was Bell really? He doesn’t seem as bad as Pedro and the bat is great. With Cutch in center it’s pretty important that the rest of the outfield is solid and Bell isn’t elite out there like Polanco

Marty W

All this talk of trading Bell at this point, to me, is nonsense. His degree of hitting talent is rare. And if he becomes the second coming of Eddie Murray Leefoo and the rest of you proponents of trading him will feel silly. Not saying he’s going to be that good, but he might.

NMR

And if he *doesn’t* become one of the greatest hitters in the history of the game?

Seems like a fair chance, after all.

leefoo

Bell has had two years to get good at 1b. He may improve somewhat, but he is almost as good as he is going to get. There’s only so much you can do with ‘bad’ feet and hands. He is plodding and has hands of stone. For you old timers, think Dick Stuart?

David N

I was looking for the right place to remind readers that this is the team that brought “Dr. Strangeglove” to the majors.

Y2JGQ2

I am not sure why giving jaso playing time is even a remote consideration. who cares? He’s a bench player, period. Lets quit talking about him like he’s an option, he’s not.

Y2JGQ2

So trade him- He takes up a roster spot that is better used by signing a decent 4th outfielder.

Y2JGQ2

Giving a player 4 different gloves and having him practice at a position does not make him capable of playing there at the major league level. This isn’t little league

Y2JGQ2

I get your point Tim, and I’m not arguing. I’m not saying Joyce should be resigned or be our 4th outfielder. That being said, you cannotd eny Joyce’s offensive value far outweighed his defensive liability out there. I can’t say that for the other guys you mentioned. Jaso and Frazier and Harrison do not have enough positive offensive value to offset their negative play out there, it doesn’t make sense.

Y2JGQ2

Tim…….that statement from you makes me face palm. I’m not even going to go there, it’s just going to end up in one or both of us being frustrated.

Y2JGQ2

None of them play the position at even an average base, and most of them have no ability to play left or center due to lack of range (at least at PNC) to be a real option if someone goes down with an injury. Every single option is not an actual outfielder and is a hugde downgrade defensively that we can’t afford. This is like saying we don’t need a backup shourtstop because Hanson came up as a shortstop and because Kang can literally stand there and field balls- its inaccurate.

Y2JGQ2

and I didn’t say to resign Joyce, did I?

Y2JGQ2

Sean Rodriguez’s success is great but unlikely to ever be duplicated again in his career. Jaso is not good. He’s not. Might he somehow have a good year in 2017 if we kept him? Sure, it’s possible, but it’s not likely. He doesn’t have enough of an upside to keep around, he doesn’t…… Sean Rodriguez outplayed his upside so far that he could hit .100 next year and strike out in 40% of his Ab’s and he’s still beat his 2 year averages.

RAS TN

Sorry, I just do not understand moving players all over the diamond, how in the world do they get good or very good defensively if they are not playing the same position…..So you have players that are maybe average at best in fielding their positions….

Remember practice practice practice…..

leefoo

He is never going to be any good at 1b or RF no matter how much ‘practice’ he gets.

He is a DH in a non-DH league.

NMR

I really wish FanGraphs had a better way of sorting WAR by position. Their methodology doesn’t differentiate value per position for guys who play multiple spots, leading to an extremely misleading total for the Pirates this year. Both Freese and Rodriguez are counted as 1B despite combining to play about a third of the time there. The Pirates actually got well under 2 WAR from the position, which is bad, but difficult to really tell where they ranked relatively since the same flaw is used for all teams.

As for Bell, I really wonder if he himself isn’t the trade chip that brings a rotation arm. If Will Craig is going to hit, he should be a very quick mover. No reason a guy with his college pedigree and high floor/low ceiling profile at a non-skill position shouldn’t be big league ready in his third professional season.

If Bell could bring a quality starter with a couple years of control, it wouldn’t kill me to see a Jaso/Freese platoon for a season until Craig is ready. Bell’s defense isn’t just a matter of poor skill, but almost a complete lack of infield instincts. Long, long road for him, but not an impossible one.

piraddict

I’d rather see them keep Bell and have Craig improve to play 3rd. They are not going to resign Kang after his initial contract, he is too old for an extension, and if he is still playing well will be too expensive as a free agent. In fact, given the residue of the Chicago incident they might even trade him for a pitcher this winter.

NMR

Pity the groundballing pitching staff with both Bell and Craig on the dirt.

piraddict

Ha, good point! They should have decent middle infielders though.

Catch22

Pretty much nailed it with lack of infield instincts….At times he seems unsure of where do be and what to do.

Matthew R

Can Cutch play first base?

Arik Florimonte

I think it would be worth trying. Alvarez and Bell make it seem a difficult transition, but Jaso and Freese both showed that it isn’t always.

Hank

Way too short, even if he had good hands

davidp

David Freese could be the defensive replacement as a double switch for 1B. if that would fit into the pirates plans of playing time for freese…IDK

Sports70

I don’t really see the benefit of starting Bell “a few games in the outfield each week” unless the Pirates trade McCutcheon. I understand wanting to manage health and injuries (which Marte, Cutch, and Polanco have certainly portrayed), but assuming Cutch bounces back in 2017, you’re talking about 3 All-stars who each between the 2-5 spots in the order and need to be out there 150 games a year for this team to reach its potential.

I think it would make sense to get Kang reps and eventual games at SS, and I’m surprised it hasn’t been presented to Freese to try working out at 2B to get more AB’s and possibly supplant Harrison there in order to get the most playing time and production out of everyone.

leowalter

McCutcheon. I hope it was your auto-correct

IC Bob

“I don’t think the Pirates will be able to play Bell at first base on a
regular basis if they want to give playing time to Freese and Jaso.” Freeze and Jaso’s playing time should have zero baring on Bell. Neither of those guys should be anything more then a back up. Bell will eventually get better at first defensively. Freeze nor Jaso will ever get better then they are on offense. Also what are we going to do with Meadows if he is ready next summer?

piraterican21

I wished that some sort of defensive matrix was included to solidify the point, to my untrained eyed, bell didn’t looked that bad over at 1b. Freese, I said it at the time of the signing, it didn’t made any sense to have him on this team, especially if his defense at third is poor, bad signing.

Arik Florimonte

Most likely one of Meadows, Polanco, Marte, or Cutch will be injured at any given time. They’ve been doing that a lot lately.

SRSLY though, Meadows’ injury history gives serious pause about his being able to reach his upside.

IC Bob

Tim was suggesting Bell would play Outfield so if he doesn’t play first add him to that list. Yes Meadows will probably be hurt but I really don’t want Meadows to be our 5th outfielder if Jaso or Freeze are playing first.

SSGJD9595

The best comparison to Bell would be Polanco. Polanco was not better then Travis Synder a few years ago. But his bat and potential forced the Pirates to let Polanco play everyday. Bell has an amazing power and can flat out hit. He is one of the reasons we traded Walker, yes that’s correct. The buccos were counting on Bell for some lefty power in PNC park.

If I had to make an educated guess on 1st base I would say DH has nothing to do w it. Bell will play 1st base about 75% of the time, and maybe 10% in RF and get 15% of the games off w Hurdles horrible strategy of day off. David Frees will play the other 25% of 1st base. The only variable is to they keep S Rod. If the do he will be the late inning guy again and double switch guy and get some spot starts.

WardHolder

If Bell hits like various scouts and lists have said he would, from both sides of the plate, he’s still a positive with the bad defense. Then Freese is the backup at both 3rd and 1st, with Jaso being a pinch hitter and occasional start at 1st. If the story of Kang getting starts at shortstop are true, that removes some pressure as well. Keep working on Bell’s defense, and see what we’ve got in him for at least one full season.

piraddict

If the Pirates can trade Jaso t his winter they will.

dr dng

I believe I saw somewhere that Bell is playing somewhere
in the off season. Will he be playing
a) 1st base
b) Rt Field
c) Lt Field
d) All of he above?

Also, I know several on the board have been very high
on Bell for a long time. (I’ve been impressed too.)
What has impressed me now from his interviews is
“how smart he seems to be” That also has to be a
positive going forward.

mouse

I’ve been thinking that the NL’s position on the DH will determine a lot of off-season decisions for the Pirates. That would be perfect for Bell. If not, the question is whether NH would consider trading him to a building Am League team looking for a young (and good) hitter, in exchange for a young pitcher.

Bobby L

Maybe a trade to an AL club would be best. But, I think I’d seek a veteran SP or 1B.

You would think before sinking $5M into a draft choice, somebody would have noticed he was a poor defender.

Y2JGQ2

Why exactly are we even thinking about a first baseman when we have one of the top prospects at 1B in the majors. Live or die, its with Josh Bell- accept it

Phil W

Unless there is a McCutchen trade or positive DH vote (neither of which do I expect nor hope for), Bell needs to be 100% focused on developing his first base defense. I think he has a better chance of developing into an adequate defensive first baseman than right fielder. I expect him to be a near everyday first baseman, occasionally sitting against lefties, and frequently leaving for a late inning defensive replacement.

EWS34

The key word in the Pirates dictionary is FLEXIBILITY. Financial and roster flexibility. Having guys who can play multiple positions gives the stat geeks more options to set the line ups. I wish I had faith that NH could make a trade or two that would re-shape the rosters core. Our good young players for their good young players. Get a power bat, or pure lead-off hitter. The Pirates have a lot of players who are valuable, but I just don’t see this team good enough to win in the short term.

emjayinTN

Agree. In 2016 the Pirates had to find enough PT for Freese, Jaso, and Srod combined with the issues affecting both Marte and Polanco towards the end of the season. My vote is to jetison both Jaso and Srod during the off-season, and put a lot of off-season effort into reps with Josh Bell. And, whisper in CH’s ear that he goes out the door if Bell is not the primary 1B.

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