Kevin Gorman: Pirates’ Josh Bell banking on potential payday in Home Run Derby
When Josh Bell bashed three home runs against the Chicago Cubs on Monday, it never occurred on the Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman that it happened on Bobby Bonilla Day.
In what has become the longest running joke in Major League Baseball, the New York Mets pay the retired slugger a $1.19 million installment every July 1 until 2035. The buyout of his $5.9 million contract in 2000 is spread over 35 years, with interest.
So on a day when Bell became the first Pirates player to hit three left-handed homers in a game since Willie Stargell, Bonilla received a payday more than double Bell’s salary.
And Bonilla hasn’t played since 2001, when Bell was 9.
Can you imagine that?
“No, I can’t imagine that,” said Bell, who is making $587,500 this season. “I have no idea what that feels like.”
Maybe Bell should start to daydream.
The first-time All-Star could find out what that feels like Monday in Cleveland, when he will be one of eight players to participate in the Home Run Derby at Progressive Field.
The contest upped the stakes by raising its prize pool from $525,000 to $2.5 million, with the winner earning $1 million. Bell has a chance to earn almost twice as much in one exhibition event as he will over a 162-game season.
“It was an honor, regardless, but that adds fuel to the fire,” Bell said, “wanting it that much more.”
Bell makes no bones that the potential payday was an incentive to throw his bat in the ring. Bell has 25 home runs this season — one shy of his total in his first full major-league season in 2017 — and figures his odds of winning are better in the Home Run Derby than playing the Powerball.
“I’ll take a one-in-eight chance over the lottery any day,” Bell said. “It’s definitely a reason to go, a reason why a lot of people didn’t say no. I feel like it’s going to add to the excitement. You’re going to see a lot of really hard swings. You’re going to see a lot of sweat out there, but it’s all for good reason, all for the money that’s on the line.”
The MLB All-Star Game doesn’t just showcase the game’s biggest stars but displays the disparity between the players who have hit the jackpot and those who are awaiting arbitration.
The Pirates circumvented the MLB Draft rules by selecting Bell in the second round in 2011 and convincing him to sign by offering a $5 million bonus, a loophole MLB quickly corrected by creating a bonus pool system that penalizes offenders.
So it’s not like Bell is broke.
But he likes the idea of adding another comma to his paycheck.
“That’s life-changing money. It’s cool,” Bell said. “I feel like the system is set up to reward good ballplayers. You have to be consistent at this level. You have to show that you can be on the field every day. Once you start getting rewarded, it’s life-changing money, and, at times, it’s generational money. I feel like this is a good taste of that, having an opportunity to earn $1 million in one night. Then we’ll see what happens in the future.”
Bell soon could be setting himself up for the generational money, as he is eligible for arbitration for the first time this offseason and is positioning himself for a monster payday. Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant, who won NL Rookie of the Year and MVP in his first two seasons, set a first-year arbitration record at $10.85 million in 2018. Boston Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts, the AL MVP, avoided arbitration by reaching an agreement for $20 million this season.
Bell knows he’s about to get paid, one way or another.
“It’s cool, but I’m just trying to stay even-keeled and stay focused on the now,” Bell said. “You’ve got so many guys going down in this game. It’s a big roller-coaster ride. You can get cold just as quickly as you get hot, so I’m just trying to stay focused on the now and let that loom off in the distance.”
The Pirates pinned their power hopes on Bell, despite a 12-homer, 62-RBI season last season. He responded by becoming the first Pirates first baseman chosen for the All-Star Game since Jason Thompson in 1982, leading the majors with 57 extra-base hits and 77 RBIs through the first 82 games.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle credited Bell for finding a routine that involves matching the velocity of the starting pitcher and swinging at balls in the strike zone instead of chasing. Bell believes his maturation as a major league hitter is the difference in the discovery of his long-ball stroke that has sent shots into the Allegheny River.
“In the minor leagues, I was constantly just trying to get to the next level and the next level and the next level,” Bell said. “Once you get here, things change. The game kind of morphs itself into your enemy almost, trying to get you out as many times as possible.
“After last year, I kind of understand what I can and can’t do and try to put my A-swing. It doesn’t take much, but I try to hit the ball square and use my levers, try to see the ball as deep as I can and still get extended on it. Everything has to happen perfectly for me to hit a homer, but I feel like I’m getting to the point where it can happen more repeatedly right now.”
With the one-day payday it would produce, Bell is banking on it happening repeatedly in the Home Run Derby.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .