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Pittsburgh Pirates prospect Josh Bell breaks out in Triple-A; will home runs follow?

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Mark Cunningham

From the Minor League Ball Mailbag:

"Josh Bell has been super-hot since moving up to Indianapolis and he was hitting pretty well at Altoona before moving up. He's got the batting average and OBP, but will he hit enough home runs to be a good first baseman?"---Clyde from Fallstaff, Maryland.

Yes, indeed Bell has been extremely hot since being promoted to Triple-A, hitting .359/.454/.521 in 34 games for the Indianapolis Indians with a notably outstanding 21/15 BB/K in 141 plate appearances. Don't forget the stellar 183 wRC+. Small sample, sure, but as Clyde mentioned he was hitting quite well in Double-A before his promotion at .307/.376/.427. Put it all together, Bell's hit .320/.395/.449 in the high minors this season with 24 doubles, 65 walks, and just 65 strikeouts in 567 plate appearances.

The former outfielder is now a full time first baseman, a move made necessary by inadequate range and outfield instincts, though he does have a strong arm. He is still learning first base and has made 15 errors there this year, though with more experience his glove should be adequate there.

But what about the home runs? Bell has just seven round-trippers this year between the two levels, not an ideal amount of over-the-fence power for a first baseman. He certainly looks like a guy with power; the switch-hitter is well-built at 6-2, 235 and his raw power has always been well-regarded; Kiley McDaniel at Fangraphs had the raw power at 55 pre-season and I heard 60s back when Bell was in high school in Texas.

Game power is another matter: Bell's career high in home runs is 13 and his home run power has yet to increase despite the fact that other aspects of his game have improved. His pure hitting skills and eye for the strike zone look increasingly sharp and certainly Triple-A pitching has not been much of a challenge.

A frequent comp for a young first baseman without big power is James Loney. However, I don't think that comp works particularly well for Bell. One potential parallel I like better is Bobby Bonilla, if you remember him. Bonilla, like Bell, was a well-built switch-hitter with raw power that didn't manifest itself particularly strongly in the minor leagues; he never hit more than 11 homers in a minor league season. However, he did control the strike zone well and his power surge began at age 24/25.

Bell just turned 23 so if he follows a similar path we should see more home run power soon. My guess is that he eventually evolves into a 20-homer hitter with a high OBP.