The Pittsburgh Pirates have an abundance of questions at this point in the offseason. One of the biggest questions surrounding the organization revolves around the starting first base position at the major league level. With the departure of Pedro Alvarez, veteran Mike Morse and newly-acquired players Jake Goebbert and Jason Rogers are currently three candidates that could replace “El Toro” in 2016. However, one top prospect, and a possible answer at first base, has yet to arrive in the Steel City.
In the second round of the 2011 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, the Pirates drafted outfielder Josh Bell, a switch hitter from Jesuit College Prep (Tx.). Out of High School, Bell was viewed as a young player with an abundance of offensive potential and average defensive abilities. Though he was drafted as an outfielder, Bell began making the transition to first base at the end of 2014, taking grounders in practice while playing for Double-A Altoona. In 2015, he made the transition complete by becoming the starting first baseman for the Curve and being named the top first base prospect in all of baseball. The transition to first base has not necessarily been an easy one for the 23-year-old. In 116 games last season at both the Double-A and Triple-A levels, Bell committed 16 errors while playing at his new position.
The move from the outfield to first base is not an easy change to make for any young player, but the defensive struggles early on did not interfere with Bell’s play offensively. Known as a guy with a high amount of power potential, Bell proved to be an all around dangerous hitter at two different levels in 2015. In 96 games for the Double-A Altoona Curve, Bell hit .307 with five home runs and 60 RBI. He didn’t quite show much power with only five homers, but he proved capable of getting on base and being a solid run producer for his club. At the end of July, Bell was promoted to Triple-A Indianapolis where he continued to produce offensively, compiling a .347/.441/.504 line, with two home runs and 18 RBI in 35 games. The Pirates 2014 Minor League Player of the Year also finished the season second among prospects in both hits (175) and RBI (78).
Aside from his offensive prowess, Bell also proved to be a guy who can be counted on to simply put the ball in play and show discipline when at the plate. In 1,435 career minor league plate appearances, Bell has only struck out 231 times. If Bell were to continue this trend in the big leagues, this ratio would be a much better upgrade from the career 29.1 percent strikeout rate of Alvarez.
With the era of Alvarez as the starting first baseman now at an end, the Pirates must commit to a better option at a position that they have struggled to find consistency at for quite a few years. Morse, Goebbert, or Rogers may not be the answer to the question “Who will be the Pirates Opening Day first baseman in 2016,” and to be completely honest, I don’t think Bell is the answer either. Pirates general manager Neal Huntington has already admitted that the Pirates are still looking for a veteran left-handed bat to complement Morse, and though Bell has shown to be a quality professional hitter during his time in the minors, he may not be ready quite yet. He is projected to make his major league debut sometime in 2016, but Bell may not get the chance to prove he is the answer to the Pirates first base issues until at least midway through the season.