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John Jaso, Josh Bell and the passing of the torch

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

On David Todd's radio show yesterday, the topic upon which he and I seemed to disagree most sharply was what the Pirates should do at first base. John Jaso has, at times, been a useful player this season, and in a year in which so many Bucs have been abjectly terrible, it seems a little perverse to lay into one of the ones who hasn't been. Jaso had a .380 OBP just a year ago, and his plate appearances early in 2016 were often a joy to watch. Also, he's taken well to first base defensively in his first season at the position. He has skills, in other words.

Still, the Bucs should find a way to move on from Jaso and clear the way for Josh Bell as soon as possible. Jaso's ability to help the Pirates is effectively capped, because his bat appears to be in decline. The issue begins with his batted-ball profile.

Year LD% GB% FB% Soft% Med% Hard%
2014 25.7 36.5 37.8 14.9 55.0 30.1
2015 21.6 52.7 36.5 15.5 36.6 37.8
2016 17.1 59.6 23.3 26.8 49.0 24.2

The numbers tell a clear story. Increasingly, Jaso simply isn't hitting the ball hard anymore. Instead, he's beating it into the ground. In fact, look at Jaso's 2016 batted-ball profile, and compare it to this one, from Player B:

LD% GB% FB% Soft% Med% Hard%
17.8 60.1 22.1 17.3 57.0 25.6

They're strikingly similar, except Player B actually hits the ball harder. Player B is Jose Tabata for his career.

All this ignores, too, that Jaso has headed backwards as the season has progressed. He batted .316/.389/.456 through the end of April, but in May it was .293/.348/.427 and in June he's hit .209/.329/.313. Over a month ago, Five Thirty Eight identified Jaso as a player who had declined sharply since last year, based on the speed and angle at which the ball was leaving his bat. That analysis, at least as it pertains to Jaso, has looked wiser since. He gives every indication of being in significant decline, and that makes sense given that he's now almost 33. He's fine as a placeholder at first, and maybe there's another .380-OBP season in there somewhere. But I wouldn't bet on it.

The Pirates, fortunately, have a ready replacement for Jaso at first in Bell, who's trending in the opposite direction. Bell was terrific for Indianapolis in April and fine in May, but he's really turned it on lately, with a .339/.413/.607 line and six homers in June. He now has 400-plus career plate appearances at Triple-A, and he's beginning to hit like he's very comfortable at that level. His home-run power appears to be developing, and offensively, that was really the last hole in his game. He's always hit for average, and he's retained his terrific batting eye, with 38 walks against 52 strikeouts this year. Maybe the Pirates are still concerned about his defense (although he's looked fine in the games I've seen him play this season). Other than that, though, he looks like he can hold his own in the majors right now, and with the Super Two threshold long past and the big-league team left with little to lose, there's little reason for him to remain in the minors.

The question will be exactly how the Pirates handle the Jaso-to-Bell transition. Jaso, despite his problems, probably has too much value to just cut, at least not before exploring all the alternatives. There's probably no way for the Pirates to keep Jaso, David Freese and Matt Joyce on their bench all at once, and Freese and Joyce are probably more useful than Jaso on the bench anyway -- Freese is more versatile and has arguably hit better, while Joyce has clearly hit better. If the Pirates fall further out of contention, they'll surely investigate the possibility of trading Freese or Joyce or both, potentially clearing a spot for Jaso as a lefty pinch-hitting option. Or perhaps they could trade Jaso himself.

In any case, though, Bell should become the Pirates' starting first baseman soon, and I wouldn't let Jaso hold things up for long. If that means designating Jaso for assignment at some point, I would potentially be open to that, even though he's under contract for another year. Jaso looks to be on the way down, Bell looks to be on the way up, and they've probably already passed each other on their way to their respective destinations. Bell is the better bet for the Pirates both now and in the future.