Pirates' Bell at peace with 'rough' decision

| Tuesday, March 20, 2012

BRADENTON, Fla. — Josh Bell is so naturally powerful he can stroke a baseball over the batter's eye at Pirate City seemingly with a single hand. He can run and throw, too, with the best of anyone in the Pirates' minor league camp.

And yet, this 19-year-old wunderkind never imagined, just a summer ago, he'd be here.

Or in any full-time line of work.

"Honestly, no, I didn't," Bell was saying after a camp scrimmage the other day. "To already be in the pros, wow, no, I'd already put that way out of my head."

Just after Bell's senior year at Jesuit College Preparatory School in Dallas, where he batted .556 with 14 home runs while striking out just five times in 139 plate appearances, he and his family made a commitment to the University of Texas. And that commitment was so solid they took the extra step of penning a letter to all 30 Major League Baseball teams advising them not to select Bell in the June draft. Even though, as Baseball America's No. 5-ranked position player, he was a projected first-rounder.

To be certain the word was out, Bell's mother, Myrtle, a professor at UT-Arlington, alerted the Dallas media with a text message.

It's common for baseball players to bluff about college to ratchet up their prices, but ... "Oh, we meant it, believe me," Bell recalled. "I was going to go to school. Everybody knew it."

That included the Boston Red Sox, the team that, more than any other, courted Bell through high school. During a Jesuit game in May, Theo Epstein, then Boston's general manager, sat in the bleachers to watch Bell even as he kept an eye on the Red Sox on his iPad. After Bell homered over a 25-foot wall in center field, a reporter asked Epstein if he found that impressive.

"If you like home runs to straightaway center," came the deadpanned response.

Alas, the Red Sox might have known the Bell family too well. The Bells believed in their commitment to Texas, and the Red Sox had more cause than most to believe that commitment.

So when the draft came, all 30 teams passed on Bell. But the Pirates, who had some but not much contact with Bell, surprised observers by taking him in the second round, then raised that to another level by offering him $5 million — highest in history outside the first round — shortly before the signing deadline in August. That scale of bonus typically went to the top three or four players in the draft, but the Pirates knew baseball was on the verge of changing its draft model and felt free to spend liberally one last time.

"Even in the end, it was a rough decision," Bell recalled. "But it turned out to be the right one for me. It meant a lot at the time that the Pirates were so committed. And coming out here now and seeing the way this camp is, the way the coaches and trainers are, I can see that they really are serious as an organization."

The Red Sox bitterly complained behind the scenes, even though the Pirates were guilty of nothing more that persistence and perhaps overpaying. Coincidence or not, baseball's top priority in labor talks last fall was a cap on draft bonuses, and that ended up in the pact. Some saw it as a direct shot at the Pirates, who had essentially blown up the system by spending $51 million over three years.

Bell laughed when asked if his selection was the final salvo.

"Yeah, there were a lot of storylines at the time, a lot of coverage," he said. "I left that for others to read. I stayed off the Internet. My dad's told me about the whole slot system and how it's changed. Hey, in regards to that, I definitely made the right choice. Maybe I got a little lucky."

The Pirates could feel the same way. Their system is in dire need of offense, particularly power, and Bell, a 6-foot-3, 213-pound, switch-hitting outfielder, is seen by scouts as having talent on par with another elite outfield prospect, Starling Marte.

Anyone seeking proof should check YouTube for Bell's majestic 430-foot home run at the Texas Rangers' ballpark in Arlington last year, one that's drawn tens of thousands of hits.

His longest ever?

"I don't really know. That thing was a monster, but think I've hit some long balls. I've hit some nice ones out here, too."

The Pirates want to see more, though, which is why they hope to nurture Bell, in general manager Neal Huntington's words, as "a hitter with power rather than a power hitter."

"Josh is much more the total package," Huntington said. "He'll play like any power hitter in that he'll strike out, but he recognizes the strike zone, recognizes breaking balls and puts the ball in play. He's got bat speed and tremendous loft. He's also very athletic. There's a lot to like in the person and the player."

It will take awhile. Bell could open the season in extended spring training to capitalize on warmer weather, but he then could go to Single-A West Virginia, a sizable jump for a first-time pro.

Bell admits his first jump — Instructional League last fall — was a challenge.

"I didn't have the same success I was used to. The pitching was better, and I was coming out every day, dealing with the wear and tear," he said. "But I've talked to a lot of people, and they've told me to just work as hard as you can. That's how you become a great player."

That level of performance, he stressed, is the long-term goal.

"I made my decision to do this, and I'm going to make the most out of it. I want to succeed in this game."

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