By Jim Lane
BRADENTON, Fla. — Barring injury, Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen and Gregory Polanco are expected to be the Pirates’ starting outfield for the next several years.
So, if you’re a young outfielder in the Pittsburgh minor league system, you might start to think about another organization, or at least another position.
The Pirates have made that decision for Josh Bell.
Rated the fourth-best prospect in the organization, Bell opens the season as the Altoona Curve’s first baseman after spending his first couple years in the system as out outfielder.
“Things are going well,” Bell said during a break in Spring Training. “I’m just taking on day at a time. I’m taking as many reps as I can and gaining more and more confidence.”
Selected by the Pirates in the second round of the 2011 MLB Draft from Dallas Jesuit College Prep (Texas), Bell was considered one of the top amateur prospects in the country and surprised many baseball executives when he signed with the Bucs.
Bell originally told big league teams not to draft him because he intended to play at the University of Texas, but a $5 million signing bonus apparently changed his mind.
A knee injury (torn meniscus) cut his first season (2012) at Low-A West Virginia to just 15 games, but he rebounded in 2013 with a .279 average, 13 homers and 76 RBIs during a full season with the Power.
The 6-foot-2, 235-pound switch hitter spent 2014 between Bradenton and Altoona. He batted .335 with nine homers and 53 RBIs in 84 games with the Marauders and .287 in 24 games with the Curve. He was named the Florida State League’s Player of the Year and was also picked as the Pirates’ Minor League Player of the Year. He also played in the All-Star Futures Game in Minnesota.
“I took some groundballs at first base with the Curve, but I didn’t really make the switch until the Arizona Fall League,” Bell noted.
“That was a little more legitimate,” he continued. “Actually, it (AFL) was an awesome opportunity. Gary Greene (a roving coach) really helped me get my feet wet (at first base).”
Having spent part of the season in Altoona should help Bell this time around.
“I was definitely happy to finish the season with the Curve, and I’m happy to be going back,” he said. “I learned some things about the town, where to live and where to eat … things like that should help.
“I’m definitely excited for the season.”
He’s also excited that Tom Prince, his manager in Bradenton, will be the Curve’s new skipper.
“My three managers (in the minors) have been Rick Sofield, Mike Ryan and Tom Prince,” Bell said. “I’ve learned so much about the game. It’s awesome that we’re going to have the same coaching staff as we had at Bradenton.
“Some of the other players from Bradenton are coming, too,” he noted. “I don’t know about the whole roster, but (pitcher Tyler) Glasnow is coming and I think we can contend for a championship.”
Larry Broadway, the Pirates’ director of minor league operations, has kept a close eye on Bell during camp.
“He’s doing a nice job,” Broadway said. “Everything was new to him — throwing, fielding, footwork. He’s made improvements in all areas just by taking the reps.”
However, Bell knows he has a long way to go before he’ll be an accomplished first baseman.
“Nothing is easy, especially at the Double-A level,” he said. “You want to be solid and stick out like a sore thumb.”
Josh Bell has always been a team player, putting the team’s success ahead of personal gains, and he won’t change.
“I just take it one day at a time, that’s the best way to play,” he said. “I’ve always fought for every win and love to celebrate with my teammates.
“It’s that way throughout the whole Pirate organization, and that’s why I think we’ll continue the winning tradition that started the last couple years.”