Pittsburgh Pirates' Josh Bell hits a two-run home run off Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson during the fourth inning of a baseball game, Thursday, July 6, 2017, in Philadelphia. (Matt Slocum/AP)
Swallowed up by the big-picture, “Nope, they’re not dead yet” July revival of the Pirates, the one that has seen them go from likely sellers to the thick of the National League Central race, is an individual development nearly as surprising. The Bucs appear, finally, to have found a first baseman.
If you are a Pirates fan of a certain age, the emergence of Josh Bell is probably much more shocking than the Bucs’ current turnaround. The last quarter century or so has seen a plethora of forgettable names pass through the position, done in either by a complete inability to field or throw a baseball (see Alvarez, Pedro), a distaste for making solid contact at the plate before June (see LaRoche, Adam) or just about any other malady or fatal flaw one could imagine.
Would you like to read some names, some blasts from the past, some saviors that never were? You would rather not? Too bad. The only way to appreciate Bell’s promising rookie season, and how good things could be, is to remember how bad they have been.
Remember Ron Wright? He came over in the Denny Neagle trade. He had 40-home run power. He was going to be the Pirates’ first baseman of the future. He was going to be the kind of pillar of power that teams search to fill their corner infield spots.
Wright’s career MLB numbers? 0 for 3, with one strikeout. In 2002. For the Seattle Mariners. Whoops.
There was Kevin Young, a brief oasis of competence and at times borderline excellence in the late 1990s. Young was a fairly slick defender with some pop in his bat. He even finished 19th in the MVP race in 1997 as arguably the best player on the freak show Pirates. Young was, in balance, a perfectly average player. By the Pirates’ first base standards, he was a borderline star.
There was Randall Simon, notable mostly for bopping a person dressed up like a bratwurst with a bat at Miller Park. There was Lyle Overbay, notable mostly for, well, nothing.
The rest of the less than distinguished list of tradesmen includes Daryle Ward, Doug Mientkiewicz, Casey McGehee, Mark Johnson, Steve Pearce, Ike Davis, Jeff Clement, Matt Hague, Eric Hinske, Corey Hart, Brandon Moss (got good after he left, of course), Travis Ishikawa and Gaby Sanchez. Garrett Jones hit a fair number of home runs and functioned as something of a heartthrob for female Pirates fans, but he was average at best.
I could keep going, but this is supposed to be a happy column, and I can feel the depression setting in.
All those misfires, all that futility, has led to Bell. Tasked with moving from the outfield to first base, he has developed into a serviceable defensive player with room to get even better in the field. Defense was what plagued Pedro Alvarez, but Bell, just shy of his 25th birthday, has taken to the position much more than Alvarez ever did, and he appears to be getting more natural in his movements and mannerisms by the day.
His glove work is important, but Bell’s bat has always been his meal ticket, even before the position switch. He’s been less selective than in his 2016 cameo, one in which he notched 21 walks against only 19 strikeouts, but the aggressive approach has paid off to the tune of 18 homers and 19 doubles through 99 games. He has displayed easy power to all fields from both sides of the plate and has a decent chance at a 30-homer, 30-double season. That’s the kind of production, especially in this renewed era of the longball, that is badly needed from a corner infielder.
Beyond the tangible traits, beyond the combination of his youth and production, is something else promising: Bell’s potential as the next face of the franchise. Andrew McCutchen has, at most, another year and a half in a Pirates uniform. After that, there will be a bit of a popularity void for fans. If he develops into a big-time performer, Bell’s personality suggests that he will be perfect for the role.
Bell is intelligent, gregarious, articulate, and most importantly, seems to take genuine joy in doing his job. His grand slam and subsequent exuberant celebration against the Cubs last July was arguably the high point in an otherwise lost season for the Bucs.
In short, he’s the type of player fans naturally gravitate toward. He’s the type of player teams build around, in every sense. Most of all, Bell appears to be the type of player with an exceedingly rare skill: the ability to excel at first base for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Chris Mueller is the co-host of "The Starkey & Mueller Show" from 2-6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 The Fan.