In the 2nd round of the 2007 MLB Draft, the then-Florida Marlins drafted a high school outfielder named Mike Stanton out of Sherman Oaks, California. Mike Stanton became Giancarlo Stanton, who causes baseballs to wake up in the middle of the night with night terrors. He wasn’t even the 1st pick in the 2nd round, either, as he lasted twelve picks in to the round. Two picks prior to Stanton, the A’s selected college outfielder Grant Desme, who gave up baseball after a couple of years to become a priest. So…yeah…the draft is a total crapshoot.
Fast forward to the 2011 draft. The Pittsburgh Pirates just selected future ace Gerrit Cole as the first overall pick in the draft. With the advent of a draft pool cap on the horizon, the Pirates’ brass collectively said “screw it” with Bob Nutting’s financial blessing and decided to go nuts with the first pick of the 2nd round.
They wanted their own Mike (Giancarlo) Stanton, who at age 21 in 2011 was on his way to showing a vision of his future, as he was in the midst of a 34-homer season. The story of how Josh Bell fell out of the 1st round may or may not be known to you, but the bullet point version is this:
- Josh Bell was considered a 1st round talent, as a powerful switch hitting OF
- Josh Bell came from a family that valued higher education, as both of his parents were college professors
- Josh Bell’s mom wrote a letter and sent it to all 30 teams instructing them to NOT draft Josh, as he was going to honor his college comittment to Texas
But the Pirates’ area scout, Mike Leuzinger, stayed on him throughout the run-up to the draft and thought he had a chance to convince Bell to sign if given the chance. So on the second day of the draft, after a long night of no sleep, the Pirates made the call and announced (to the shock of 29 other teams) Josh Bell’s name. This was a big deal.
It was an even bigger deal when the August deadline came around and the Pirates ponied up $5M…again…$5 million…dollars to ink him to a deal. It was by far the largest ever non-1st round bonus in draft history and viewed as an impetus to MLB implementing the draft pool cap the following year.
Bell’s Pirate minor league career got off to a rocky start as he only played 15 games in 2012 before tearing his meniscus in his knee and missing the remainder of the year. He needed to get some platelet-rich injections in the offseason, which started to raise doubts about him achieving his full potential.
He came back in 2013 with a very solid, respectable season at age 20 in Low A ball (.279 AVG/.353 OBP/.453 SLG). He hit only 13 homers, but also knocked 37 doubles. To me, a young power hitter that hits doubles eventually turns them into home runs, so this was encouraging.
The 2014 season saw Bell start to evolve into something different, something unexpected. Rather than becoming a power hitter befitting his 6′-2″/235 pound frame, Bell started to hit for high average and just moderate power. His first half of the year was spent inflicting pain on pitchers in the High A Florida State League (.335 AVG/.384 OBP/.502 SLG) with nine homers in 84 games. He still hit 20 doubles, though, along with 4 triples. The second half of his 2014 season was spent by the 21-year old in Double A Altoona, where he had a solid average (.287) but no power at all (.309 SLG).
So here we are at the part of the article where I tell you how Bell is on the precipice of greatness. That’s…partly true. In 2015, Bell has amped up his average to amazing heights in Double A, at a .343 rate. It’s not just a hot streak of a few weeks, either, as he been remarkably consistent the first two months (.352 in April, .337 in May). Amazingly, Josh Bell has walked more than he has struck out (23 walks/16 strikeouts). But the home run power has dissipated to the tune of just one home run — until you look at see the 5 triples he has legged out this year, which shouldn’t happen when you are Bell’s height/weight profile.
This is an important year both for Bell, but also for the future of the Pirates at 1B. I’ve written about how I feel the 2015 season is probably Pedro Alvarez’s last with the Pirates. The 2016 season is his last year and team control. Coupled with his agent being uber-agent Scott Boras, who does not typically advise his clients to sign pre-free agency deals, the writing is on the wall for Alvarez. The Pirates will probably try to trade him this offseason, even for 30 cents on the dollar, as they won’t risk letting him leave in free agency for nothing. If the Pirates wanted to try and even recoup a supplemental 1st round draft pick, they would have to offer Alvarez the qualifying offer (probably around $16M for 1 year after 2016) and then hope Alvarez/Boras turn it down. So they’ll try and move Alvarez.
In a perfect world, Josh Bell would step right in at the outset of 2016 (or a few weeks into the season, a la Kris Bryant of the Cubs, so that the Pirates get an extra year of control) and man 1B. But his lack of power, albeit in exchange for high average and good batting eye, does not probably inspire much confidence for the men on Federal Street.
What if Bell was not the power-crushing 35 HR guy envisioned on draft day, but rather a .280 switch-hitting/high teens home run hitter? Would that be sufficient for the Pirates to install him as a starter? Would you trade 20 potential Alvarez home runs for 50 points of batting average and an improved walk rate/reduced strikeout rate? I think I would right now, but hopefully Bell turns the power switch on during the remainder of the season and makes that decision easier for Neal Huntington and crew.