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Bell could fill Pirates' biggest need sooner than later

| Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016, 8:36 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates prospect Josh Bell works out at first base during the team's minicamp Monday, Jan. 11, 2016, at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Josh Bell, working on his defense alongside newcomer John Jaso at Pirates minicamp earlier this month, hit seven homers across two levels last season.
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Pirates prospect Josh Bell, playing in the All-Star Futures Game last season, could be the answer to the team's longtime hole at first base.

While much of the offseason attention is given to additions a team makes via free agency and trades — bringing immediate impact — the Pirates' ability to sustain success will have to come from within, from down on the farm.

Given the spending guidelines from ownership, if the Pirates are to continue to compete with the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals for National League Central crowns, they need more help from their farm system.

The Cardinals, for instance, selected and developed players from the 2008-12 drafts who have combined for 65.6 wins above replacement (WAR) in the majors to date, according to BaseballReference.com data. The Pirates: 29.6 WAR. And just in 2015, the Cubs were buoyed by a number of impact rookies, including Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber.

In the coming years, however, the Pirates expect to receive more help from what is considered a strong farm system, perhaps as soon as this season in one area of need: first base.

Since 2004, 44 players have played at least one game at first base for the Pirates. Josh Bell — ranked as the No. 3 prospect in the organization by Baseball America — soon could bring stability to the position. He is expected to be the future at first base for the club. In the short term, the Pirates signed John Jaso to a two-year deal this offseason, likely to platoon with Michael Morse or Jason Rogers.

Bell, a 2011 second-round pick who signed for a $5 million bonus — the largest in club history for a player selected after the first round — offers the potential of a platoon-proof, switch-hitting first baseman, one who can hit for average and power.

“I'm not going to put a time frame on him,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. “But there's a lot of good things happening with Josh.”

A career .305 hitter in the minors with a .371 on-base mark and .450 slugging percentage, Bell began 2015 in Double-A, where he posted a .307/.376/.427 line. He was even better after being called up to Triple-A, slashing .347/.441/.504.

At Triple-A, he demonstrated control of the strike zone and contact ability, striking out in just 10 percent of his plate appearances and walking in 14 percent.

There are, however, questions Bell has to answer.

For starters, will his above-average raw strength translate into game power? Bell hit just seven home runs last season.

Bell added a leg kick in July that helped him drive the ball more consistently. Huntington said he believes the power will come.

“You go back in time, and pre-artificial enhancements, there was a natural maturation process to most power hitters. Most natural power hitters didn't hit 30 home runs in the minor leagues,” Huntington said. “Our eyes are skewed, based on what we've seen over the last 15 or 20 years. There is some recurrence of what worked in the '80s and what worked in the early '90s working again as the game gets back to baseball. In our mind, Josh is the guy who projects to mature into his power.

“He's physically different than he was when he signed with us. He's put on man-strength naturally, which is really fun to see.”

Bell also has been better from the left side of the plate as a minor-leaguer.

In about 100 plate appearances in Triple-A against right-handed pitching, he posted a 1.072 OPS last season. In about 300 Double-A plate appearances last season, he posted an .868 OPS against righties. But he had a .643 OPS against lefties in Double-A and a .600 mark in Triple-A.

And he struggled defensively at first base last season after converting from the outfield.

“Defense continues to be a challenge. It reminds us that when you play very far away from the baseball for the majority of your life, when you get much closer to the baseball, the game really speeds up,” Huntington said. “He's smart. He's athletic. He's working at it. To be where we are at the end of one year at the position, it's very positive.”

Bell is a good athlete, but Pedro Alvarez serves as a reminder that the transition to first base isn't always easy.

“It's one of those things where people said, ‘You can put on a first baseman's mitt and go ahead and take ground balls and be good to go,' ” Bell told MLB.com last season. “But there is a learning curve.”

Bell is not a candidate to open the season with the major-league club. But when he is ready, the Pirates hope the number of first basemen used during the next decade is closer to one than 44.

Travis Sawchik is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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