John Steigerwald: Enjoy Josh Bell before he leaves the Pirates
Enjoy the Josh Bell ride while it lasts.
Going into Sunday’s game against the Dodgers, Bell had the second highest batting average in Major League Baseball at .339, he was second in RBIs with 47 and tied for fifth in home runs with 16.
Bell is on pace to hit 49 home runs and drive in 141 runs. That would be the greatest single-season offensive performance in Pirates history. The home runs would be the most hit by a Pirate not playing in a park where fences were moved in to make it easier.
Willie Stargell hit 48 in 1971. Ralph Kiner doesn’t count.
Guys who hit the way Bell has been hitting usually don’t hit that way for 162 games. Guys who hit the way Bell has been hitting don’t stay in Pittsburgh.
If Bell’s performance this season is a sign of things to come, which would mean he’s on his way to becoming a 40-home run per year guy, the clock is ticking. He’s signed through the 2021 season.
Count on him being gone after that.
Can you see the Pirates guaranteeing a player $300 million?
If Bell has officially arrived as one of the most dangerous hitters in baseball, his departure is only about when, not if.
But, hey, let’s give the Pirates’ front office credit for being creative and courageous enough to sign him. In 2011, when he was a senior in high school, Bell’s family sent a letter to the commissioner’s office to inform MLB that he had signed to play baseball at Texas and shouldn’t be drafted.
The Pirates drafted him anyway in the second round with the 61st pick. They gave him a $5 million signing bonus, a record for a second-round pick.
That’s right. The cheap Nutting family set a record for spending money. They set a MLB record by giving out $17 million in signing bonuses that year. The previous record was $11.93 million by the Washington Nationals the year before.
The Pirates had found a way to compete with the big-money teams by spending big bucks on players they could control for six years after they made it to the big leagues.
That changed in a hurry.
The big market teams took care of that with the 2012 collective bargaining agreement. They introduced rules that put limits on the amount of bonus money that could be paid.
There would be no more huge signing bonuses for players taken in the second round.
The system is too complicated and boring to go into detail about, but it assigns teams a total amount of signing bonuses it can hand out based on how high it’s picking in the draft.
If a team goes 5% over what it’s allowed to spend, there’s a 75% tax on the overage. It escalates from there and can include the loss of future first-round picks.
So, under the current rules, the Pirates would not have been able to talk Bell out of going to college by throwing a record amount of money at him.
But the Nutting family is OK. Those revenue sharing checks keep coming, and they will make the Pirates profitable even if they’re rarely competitive.
So, enjoy Bell now. He might come back to Earth and be just another good player, or he could be on his way to putting up Willie Stargell numbers and a having plaque in the Hall of Fame.
Just don’t expect to see his statue outside of PNC Park.
John Steigerwald is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.