Pittsburgh Pirates News: Team Still Interested In A Josh Bell Extension
By Noah Wright
Even though Josh Bell had a rough and inconsistent 2020, the Pittsburgh Pirates aren’t ruling out an extension for the switch hitting slugger.
Last off-season, the Pittsburgh Pirates were looking into extending some of their young players. But they were unable to get anything past preliminary planning before transactions were put to a halt in March. One of the Pirates’ current extension candidates is first baseman Josh Bell, and it seems Ben Cherington hasn’t ruled out an extension with the slugging first baseman, as per Rob Biertempfel of the Athletic.
So far, Bell’s career has been a real roller coaster. In 2017, his rookie season, Bell hit .255/.336/.466 with 26 home runs and a 108 wRC+. Bell definitely put on a good display of power with his home run total and .211 isolated slugging percentage, but that power didn’t carry over in 2018. He hit .261/.357/.411 with a 111 wRC+, but only hit a dozen long balls and saw his isolated slugging fall to just .150. However, Bell did see his walk rate go from 10.6% in 2018 to a strong 13.2% mark in 2019 and his strikeout rate fall from 18.9% to 17.8%.
2019 was Bell’s big breakout season, but we essentially saw three different Josh Bell’s throughout the year. The first was his outstanding April and May performances where he hit for an otherworldly .343/.405/.704 line, 178 wRC+ and smashing 18 long balls all in 242 plate appearances. Bell really struggled throughout June and July, turning in a .213/.313/.448 line, 94 wRC+ and just 9 long balls in his next 212 plate appearances. But at least Bell ended the 2019 season on a high note, batting .259/.377/.516 with 10 long balls and a 126 wRC+ in his last 154 plate appearances.
This year, Bell again was very inconsistent. The switch hitter hit for an atrocious .204/.257/.282 with a 47 wRC+ in his first 113 plate appearances, just to hit .263/.363/.463 with a 116 wRC+ in his last 113 plate appearance.
On the plus side, Bell makes hard contact consistently. In 2019, Bell 47.2% hard hit rate and 92.4 MPH exit velocity. His hard hit rate was the 29th highest mark in all of baseball and his exit velo came in at 14th. Last year, Bell still made hard contact quite often at 42.9%, and when he did make contact, he averaged 91.7 MPH off the bat.
The one thing that currently holds Bell back is his defense. Since his rookie season, Bell has -26 DRS, -18.2 UZR, a -9.1 UZR/150 and -6.2 range runs above average. Bell is tied for last in DRS with Orioles’ Chris Davis, but has the lowest UZR/150, with Yuli Gurriel coming in next to last at -3.7. During his breakout 2019 campaign, he had -5 outs above average, and -16.4 UZR/150. However as things stand right now, Bell’s ability to handle first base might not be a long term issue. Bell spent a decent amount of time at the designated hitter spot. Right now, the MLB does not plan on implementing the universal-DH for 2021, as per LaVelle E. Neal of the Star Tribune. However, during next off-season’s CBA negotiations, the universal-DH will definitely be a talking point, and has a high possibility of being implemented for the 2022 season.
As of right now, Bell himself would not factor into the Pirates’ plans of competing. Their window of competition is projected to open in 2023-2024. A handful of their prospects like Travis Swaggerty, Tahnaj Thomas, Nick Gonzales, Liover Peguero, Quinn Priester and Brennan Malone just to name a few, are projected to see the majors between the year’s 2022 and 2024. Bell is only controlled through 2022 with two years of arbitration left, which could make him more of a trade candidate.
In the farm, the Bucs have a few future options to replace Bell if they were to trade him, or if he were to leave in free agency. Currently, Mason Martin is the team’s best first base prospect. Martin put on an insane display of power in 556 plate appearances between Greensboro and Bradenton. He smacked 35 long balls, put up a .558 slugging percentage and .304 isolated slugging. He fits into that 2023-2024 window as Fangraphs puts his ETA at 2022.
Their other notable first base prospect is Alexander Mojica. Though he played mostly third base at Dominican Summer League in 2019, he projects as more of a first baseman. He also hit well in the turning in a .351/.468/.580 line and 182 wRC+, albeit in only 213 plate appearances. However, Mojica is still a very young, raw talent. He just turned 18 at the beginning of August and Fangraphs gives him an ETA of 2023. You don’t want to rush him either.
If the Pittsburgh Pirates think they can solve Josh Bell’s talented, but inconsistent bat, then now is the time to extend him. Bell is coming off an overall subpar season so his value is low. There is a possibility that they are able to solve Bell’s inconsistency given the complete change in coaching and development. However it’s still going to be a challenge to extend him given that his agent is Scott Boars, and the Pirates don’t want to be stuck with another Gregory Polanco situation.