Josh Bell‘s emergence isn’t just a great rookie campaign. He may singlehandedly keep the Pirates’ window of contention open.
It hasn’t been a great season in Pittsburgh. Entering play Tuesday night, the Pirates are 66-72, virtually out of postseason contention and mired in everything from off-field issues (Jung Ho Kang) to PED issues (Starling Marte) to a particularly nasty spate of injuries throughout the season, to a team that was already considered by some to be approaching the downside, close to having to blow components of the big league club up and begin rebuilding.
Enter Josh Bell.
Josh Bell, #Pirates all-time rookie ranks:
– HR (2nd)
– RBI (none higher since 1940)
– SLG (best since 1955)
— Joe Block (@joe_block) September 5, 2017
I know, right?
Neck-and-neck with face of the franchise Andrew McCutchen for the team lead in OPS, home runs, doubles and RBI, the 24-year-old has more than exceeded expectations. And while this season may be slipping away, the future may not be as uncertain as it appeared a year ago.
Unfortunately, with Cody Bellinger on a bigger stage with a front-running favorite to take the pennant (and taking nothing away from Bellinger’s sensational rookie season, slashing .269/.347/.601) Bell’s season (.262/.341/.490) has been overshadowed and underappreciated.
Bellinger will likely run away with NL Rookie of the Year, but it merits mentioning that Bellinger is better protected in that Dodgers lineup than Bell is with the Pirates. Plus, Bell’s BB/K ratio is far more attractive than the whiff-friendly Bellinger.
Beyond the short-term, though, it’s Bell’s immediate impact at the major league level that may afford the organization to reload rather than rebuild. With Gerrit Cole controllable and just entering arbitration, veteran workhorse Ivan Nova is locked in and young, promising pitchers in Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl, Tyler Glasnow and Steven Brault, the pitching seems to be more than mere trade chips. With the standard core of McCutchen, Marte, Gregory Polanco and Josh Harrison and assets in John Jaso and Adam Frazier along with Bell, this is a well-blended team of youth and veteran talent that could easily catapult itself right back into a competitive division for the next few years. Kang’s off-field issues are in no small part mitigated by Bell’s emergence.
Further, considering that Pittsburgh just extended GM Neal Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle, they’re committed to keeping the course. While the rest of baseball is still doe-eyed over the Chicago Cubs, the Milwaukee Brewers are ahead of schedule in their reclamation project and the St. Louis Cardinals always manage to keep themselves relevant (often in spite of themselves) to divisional conversation, the Pirates are quietly biding their time and may well take the league by surprise a year from now.
Bell is earning his spot in the mix; after dipping to a dreadful .138 batting average in mid-April, he’s adjusted and hit a respectable .273 since, getting on base 35% of the time and has already surpassed 20 doubles and 20 home runs. With some work, he could join the Rockies’ Charlie Blackmon as the only other member of the 25 HR/25 2B/10 3B club this season, a feat no one has attained since Curtis Granderson in 2011.
It’s not just a strong campaign, either: Bell is growing at the plate and becoming a rock at first, with an unusual combination of switch-hitting power and speed for the position. No one will mistake him for George Sisler, but his ability to get around the bases provides Hurdle great lateral movement in his lineups and decision-making.
On the field, Bell has committed only one error since July 25 and has a better than league average range factor (9.57, 9.01). At 24, he should continue to profile as an every day at the 3 and can grow into a steady presence in the heart of the Pirates’ lineup. The revolving door they’ve at that position since Adam LaRoche stops here.
For fans waving the Jolly Roger at PNC Park (one of the great, underrated traditions in baseball, echoing European soccer in all the right ways), Josh Bell should be a savior. And he should be given every opportunity to be.
Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.