Pipeline Perspectives: Bell ready to join Top 100
Pirates outfield prospect rebounded nicely after injury-shortened first pro season
There's a good amount of subjectivity regarding baseball prospects. With the evaluation of talent being in the eye of the beholder, finding consensus is often difficult. Even Jim Callis and Jonathan Mayo at MLBPipeline.com don't always see eye-to-eye. They'll be discussing their viewpoints regularly in a feature called Pipeline Perspectives. Submit a topic for them to debate.
It may seem impossible, but a player who signed for $5 million out of the 2011 First-Year Player Draft has caused very few ripples on the prospect scene since.
That doesn't mean Josh Bell lacks upside or that his talents have regressed significantly. He's my choice as the player who is absent from MLB.com's current Top 100 Prospects List and is poised to make that jump in 2014.
As a senior at Dallas Jesuit High School in 2011, Bell enthralled scouts with his bat. He took up switch-hitting at age five, and he consistently pounded the ball from both sides of the plate. The outfielder projected to be a plus hitter for both average and power, and he also offered solid athleticism and a strong 6-foot-3, 206-pound frame.
Add it all up, and Bell easily projected as a mid-first-round pick. Except for one thing -- his mother, a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, was adamant that he attend college. Shortly before the Draft, Bell sent a letter to the Major League Scouting Bureau explaining that we would attend the University of Texas rather than turning pro.
Area scouts and senior scouting officials believed Bell and his family were sincere and weren't trying to pull some negotiating ploy. Clubs thought he might not even sign if offered an eight-figure bonus. Nevertheless, the Pirates took a low-risk gamble by selecting him with the first pick on the second day of the Draft, the top choice in the second round and No. 62 overall.
If they didn't sign Bell, the Pirates would have received the No. 63 selection in the 2012 Draft as compensation, and as the Aug. 15 deadline for signing approached, there was little talk that they'd get a deal done. But shortly before the clock struck midnight, Pittsburgh landed Bell for $5 million -- nearly double the previous record for a pick outside of the first and supplemental first rounds (Jason Young got $2.75 million from the Rockies in 2000).
Yet Bell has mostly flown under the radar since then. Because he signed so late in 2011, he didn't play professionally that summer. And much like Jonathan Mayo's choice as the best of the non-Top 100 crowd -- Mariners third baseman D.J. Peterson -- Bell got hurt early in his first pro season. He tore the meniscus in his left knee while running the bases in April 2012, ending his first pro season after 15 games.
While Bell was out, the Pirates farm system took a huge step forward. Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon established themselves as one of the best pitching tandems in the Minors. Outfielder Starling Marte graduated to Pittsburgh, and outfielder Gregory Polanco and shortstop Alen Hanson had breakout seasons in 2012. Bell returned to low Class A West Virginia this year with less of a spotlight on him, and on the Power he was somewhat overshadowed by right-hander Tyler Glasnow's explosive stuff and first baseman Stetson Allie's transformation from wild flamethrower to slugger.
Nevertheless, Bell had a fine season and still looked like the player whom scouts coveted two years earlier. He appeared in 119 games and batted .279/.353/.453 with 37 doubles and 13 homers. His power currently grades ahead of his hitting ability, probably because he spent most of the year making adjustments to his swing from both sides of the plate. Some scouts thought he was too upright from the right side, though he did hit .302/.353/.491 against lefties, and he controlled the strike zone well for a 20-year-old coming off a yearlong layoff.
The rest of his tools help Bell profile well as a right fielder. His average speed has returned since his knee surgery, and he's a steady defender with a solid arm. While he'll need a couple of more years before he completes the climb to Pittsburgh, he won't require that much time to crack our Top 100 Prospects list.