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Once-heralded Pirates prospect, OF Bell starting over

| Sunday, March 10, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Christopher Horner
Pirates prospect Josh Bell works out in the outfield Friday, March 8, 2013, at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla. (Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review)

BRADENTON, Fla. — The days can get long and tedious at Pirate City this time of year.

The major leaguers have moved on to McKechnie Field, and the minor leaguers who aren't with them shift from field to field and drill to drill under the watchful eyes of those who will decide their futures.

But Josh Bell won't complain.

After missing most of last season rehabbing from knee surgery, the Pirates' top corner outfield prospect is all too familiar with the alternative.

“It was tough,” said Bell, 20, who played in just 15 games with Low-A West Virginia in his first professional season. “It was definitely a learning process for me. It stinks not being able to do anything except rehab for yourself and no real quick results.”

The Pirates pulled a surprise by drafting Bell out of high school in the second round of the 2011 draft and lured him away from college with a $5 million signing bonus. Last spring, all eyes turned to Bell to see what the highly regarded teenager with the powerful swing could do.

But Bell tore the left meniscus while running the bases. He was expected to miss four to six months after surgery in April, but swelling continued late into the season, extending his recovery time.

While Bell rehabbed in Bradenton, two of his Low-A West Virginia teammates enjoyed breakout seasons.

Unranked by Baseball America prior to 2012, center fielder Gregory Polanco landed on the Top 100 prospects list at No. 51 this year, and infielder Alen Hanson, also absent from the 2012 list, appears at No. 61. Bell, who was No. 60 prior to 2012, dropped out of the Top 100. The publication also named Polanco as the organization's best hitter for average, best athlete and best defensive outfielder in the system.

Bell also dropped out of the Baseball Prospectus Top 101 rankings after coming in at No. 43 a year earlier, one spot behind Luis Heredia and ahead of Starling Marte (No. 56). Polanco debuted on the publication's list this year at No. 44, ahead of Heredia (No. 53) and Hanson (No. 66).

“We were excited about (Polanco and Hanson), but I don't think anyone projected that they were going to be two of the best players or have two of the best years in minor league baseball,” assistant general manager Kyle Stark said. “But both are guys who we felt were going to take some strides forward.”

Polanco and Hanson will move up to High-A Bradenton this season.

“To have young players deal with that success, there's always a component of, does it make them hungrier?” assistant general manager Greg Smith said. “Does it increase their drive? Or do you have to fight that tendency to become comfortable. I don't think they will, but when you're dealing with young players, there's always that balance. You're trying to make sure they stay on the right side of the pendulum and maintain what got them to that point.”

This year, Baseball Prospectus and Baseball America list Bell as the organization's sixth-best prospect. Baseball America also named him the best power hitter in the system. He will start the season at West Virginia.

Bell's priority is to stay healthy and experience all the reps, at-bats and innings of his first full professional season. Outside of that, the 6-foot-3, 213-pound native of Irving, Texas, said he hopes to win a lot of games and compete for a championship, no matter where he is.

He has no regrets about his decision to choose baseball over college.

“You can't really know what would happen in college, but these guys really, really took care of me this last year, and I'm excited to be back and healthy,” he said. “You have to play every day like it's your last.

“We had a long day (Thursday), but I loved every second of it.”

Karen Price is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at kprice@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KarenPrice_Trib.

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