Highly-touted Pittsburgh Pirates prospect Josh Bell has been working his way toward the Majors since 2011, slowed considerably by a significant knee injury that threatened to derail his progress. It appears that he is now set to make his ML debut, and Pirates fans who got to see righty Tyler Glasnow make his own debut recently will now get to witness in action a slugger who Baseball America rated as their 38th best-overall prospect before the start of this season.
Drafted in 2011 in the second round out of Dallas Jesuit College Prep, Bell has carried with him lofty expectations from the very beginning. Signing for a $5 million dollar bonus at the deadline (a record for a post-1st-round bonus, at the time), Bell was actually assigned to the Short-Season Class-A State College Spikes in the New York-Penn League, but never appeared in a game. In 2012 he was assigned to the Class-A West Virginia Power, his first full-season assignment. Before he could get underway, however, Bell sustained a lateral meniscus tear in his left knee resulting from strain he suffered while making his turn at first base. He ended up missing nearly the whole season and needed almost two seasons to completely recover after surgery due to repeated swelling of his knee during both his post-op period and his return to the field.
He returned to the Power in 2013 and gave scouts an indication of the power to come, hitting 13 home runs and 37 doubles over the course of 119 games. He also drove in 76 runs and scored 75 more while batting .279 and posting an .806 OPS. More important, perhaps, than his power numbers, was the simple fact that he was able to appear in so many games.
He split 2014 between High-A Bradenton and Class-AA Altoona, batting a combined .325 with 22 doubles, nine homers and 60 RBI in 108 games. Bell added in nine steals, for good measure. 2015 was more of the same, as he advanced from the Class-AA Altoona Curve to Class-AAA Indianapolis late in the season without missing a beat (.317, 24 doubles, nine triples, seven HR, 78 RBI in 131 games), while also maintaining a 1:1 BB/K ratio and adding considerably to the buzz surrounding him. At the present, as he awaits his imminent ML promotion, Bell is batting a robust .324 with 13 HR, 19 doubles and 53 RBI in 83 games with the Indianapolis Indians.
At 6’2", 245 pounds, Bell is now 40 pounds over his playing weight as a HS senior. Concerns about his size should be put aside, as he moves very well and doesn’t appear to have lost any of his athleticism at this point. He doesn’t have much in the way of first-step quickness, which will impact his range in the field more than it will affect his base-running ability. Bell does have average speed when fully underway on the bases. At the plate, he shows a natural loft in his swing and quick hands, complimenting excellent strike-zone judgment and sound pitch recognition. His high averages in the last few years are a product of his frequent, hard contact, and talent for squaring up pitches with regularity. A peak at 30 home runs as a ML full-time first baseman would not be surprising, though he will probably stabilize closer to 23-25 on average, with a healthy amount of doubles (35/season, easily) mixed in.
In the field, as mentioned earlier, Bell has work still to be done. He has some difficulty with close one-hoppers to both sides, and especially has struggled with hard-hit grounders to his right. He has the mobility, range and athleticism to become an average defensive first baseman, but that isn’t going to happen anytime soon. It will happen, however.
There is little question that Bell can become a major run-producing bat in the Pirates’ order, and projects to drop into the #5 slot. He should have the present ability to carry a .280 average in the Majors, and could even become a regular threat to the .300 mark. His combination of strength, coordination and plate skills will likely net him a few All-Star appearances, as well. The only true roadblock to any of these possibilities will be how well he holds up against the rigors of a Major League season. Assuming he plays in at least 140 games per year, a peak line of .285, 28 homers and at least 90 RBI is well within reach. I suspect he will also need to maintain his conditioning in order to reach his full potential.