I’ve been a Josh Bell fan from the very beginning. Rated the 15th-best prospect in the 2011 draft, Bell had everything you’d want. Just 18, he was big and strong, and his large frame that guaranteed he’d get even bigger and stronger when he filled out. He was a switch-hitter and apparently had the skills to play the outfield, as at least one respected prospect publication rated him the best outfield prospect in the draft.
But Bell went to great lengths to discourage MLB teams from drafting him that year, insisting that his commitment to attend – and play for – the University of Texas was the real deal. Still, the Pirates took a shot, selecting Bell in the second round, and gave him five million reasons to forgo his commitment to the Longhorns. It was a record bonus for a second-round draft pick and prompted MLB to change its approach to signing bonuses in the draft.
Bell’s time with the Pittsburgh organization got off to a rough start, as he sustained what turned out to be a serious knee injury early in his rookie season of 2012 with the West Virginia Power of the Class A South Atlantic League. He went back to West Virginia in 2013 and put together an .806 OPS, then followed that with an .834 mark in 2014, which he split between Bradenton and Double-A Altoona. He upped that slightly in 2015, finishing at .838 in a season he divided between Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis. It was at Altoona that Bell made the switch from the outfield to first base, having been introduced to the position at the Arizona Fall League in 2014.
Bell put together an .850 OPS at the start of the 2016 season at Indianapolis, earning his recall to the big league club, where he finished with a .775 OPS in 128 at-bats. I remember being in Cooperstown, doing some research on a book project, when Bell made his big league debut, and I vividly recall listening to him hit a grand slam as a pinch hitter in his second major league at-bat against the Cubs at PNC Park that July. Where would we all be without the MLB At Bat app?
Bell has been the Pirates’ regular first baseman the past three seasons, and last year had one of the best first halves any Pirate ever put together, slugging .648 with a 1.024 OPS in the season’s first 88 games. He tailed off in the second half, hitting just .233 with a .780 OPS but still finished with a .936 OPS, 37 home runs and 116 RBIs. And although he would never be confused with Keith Hernandez or Mark Grace at first base, he did show some defensive improvement, particularly with handling throws in the dirt. It remained frightening, however, to watch him throw.
Bell’s true breakout season came at the right time for him in terms of his contract, as he was entering his first arbitration-eligible year. He and the Pirates avoided that when he agreed to sign a $4.8 million contract for the 2020 season. At age 27 – he turns 28 in mid-August – he figures to be entering his true prime, and should be a mega run producer for the next five to eight seasons, providing he takes care of himself and isn’t subjected to any catastrophic injuries.
So, why would I like to see the Pirates trade Josh Bell? Well, I wouldn’t enjoy seeing it, given his power, his character, his charisma and everything else he brings to the club. But it might be the best way for the club to, as new GM Ben Cherington says, get better every day. As far as assets go, he ranks high on the Pirates list, and is respected throughout baseball, having been ranked the No. 9 first baseman in the game by MLB Network.
I couldn’t tell you what Bell would bring in a trade, but I wouldn’t be willing to let him go unless the return was significant. And before you dismiss the idea out of hand, hear me out. If the Pirates did indeed move Bell, they would have several options to replace him, including plugging Will Craig in to take his place. But the best option, at least to me, would be to move Gregory Polanco to first base. Polanco, still trying to recover from his disastrous slide-inducing injuries late in 2018, apparently will never completely recover from his shoulder surgery. So perhaps playing first base would take some of the pressure off that shoulder, and allow him to focus on regaining the stroke that made him one of the organization’s top prospects years ago. And it would also spare Pirates fans of having to watch Polanco try to play right field, which rivals watching Bell have to make an important throw from first base. I realize Polanco has never reached his vast potential, largely due to injuries, but when healthy he has produced, booking an .839 OPS in his most recent full season, 2018.
Another impetus for making these moves is one Oneil Cruz. One of Pittsburgh’s most highly regarded prospects, Cruz has seen all of his playing time at shortstop since coming over to the Pirates from Los Angeles in the Tony Watson trade in 2017. But despite the fact that Baseball America ranks Cruz baseball’s ninth-rated shortstop prospect, I can’t imagine him remaining at shortstop – or anywhere in the infield, for that matter, except for first base – when he begins packing weight onto his 6-foot-7 frame. I also can’t envision him playing center or left field. So, that leaves one spot – assuming the National League does not adopt the designated hitter before Cruz has arrived in Pittsburgh: right field.
I’m sure the new regime is in no hurry to promote Cruz through the system, seeing as how he’s had just two minor league seasons of more than 400 at-bats, and he missed time last year with injury. He finished last year at Double-A Altoona and followed that up with a lackluster stint in the Arizona Fall League, so perhaps he’ll return to Altoona for at least the first half of 2020. But if he hits the way everyone thinks he’ll hit, I could see him moving up to Indianapolis for the last half of the season, and then starting there in 2021. But perhaps we’ll see him in PNC Park in 2022.
That would be Polanco’s next-to-last year under contract – at $12.5 million — and he’s due $13.5 million in 2023. There’s no telling if Bob Nutting would be willing to pay that to keep Polanco around, but if he performs at a high level, it’s not out of the question, at least based on the things Nutting has been saying since the regime change. So, for at least one of those seasons, and perhaps parts of two, the Bucs could feature Polanco at first and Cruz in right. And if Cruz physically grows out of his outfield position, he, too, could move to first base if Polanco moves on.
One question in all of this would be who would take Polanco’s place in right field? Well, given that it would only be a year or two, I could see the Pirates using some sort of a platoon to fill the gap. Or perhaps Craig, who was played 13 games in right field in Indianapolis last season, could be given a shot. Craig, 25, has shown some power, having hit 20 home runs at Altoona in 2018 and 23 at Indianapolis last season, although it’s hard to accurately gauge power with the ball that was used in 2019.
I realize this isn’t a perfect plan, and it would be most understandable if fans would have absolutely zero interest in trading a player entering his prime – particularly someone who is one of the few bright spots in what could be a long couple of seasons. But what are the odds of Bell wanting to sign a long-term deal to remain in Pittsburgh, and what is the possibility of the Pirates being willing to pony up the money that it would take keep Bell here?
If Bell were to fetch two highly rated prospects – perhaps a catcher the team could count on for the next five or six seasons and a pitcher who is nearly major-league ready, or two top pitching prospects, it just might make sense. But perhaps the better approach is to maintain the status quo for one more year. That would give Pirates brass time to see if Bell’s second-half slump was anything to worry about, and also give them time to gauge Polanco’s recovery from his shoulder issues as well as the progress made by Cruz and Craig. This time next year, assuming Bell has another standout season, he would retain plenty of value, as he’d still have two more seasons at a somewhat reasonable price tag. He would remain a major asset for the Pirates, either on the field or in a trade.