Can Josh Bell End the Pirates Revolving Door at First Base?

There’s more exciting prospect news as the Pirates have called up 1B Josh Bell for this weekend’s series against the first place Cubs. The Pirates No. 3 prospect has torn the International League apart for Triple-A Indy. Through 83 games and 359 plate appearances, Bell is slashing a robust .324/.407/.535 for a .942 OPS. The switch hitter recorded 36 extra-base hits, including 13 home runs and walked 41 times compared to 55 strikeouts. Bell’s .324 ranked second in the International League, behind only the Pirates Adam Frazier, who was called up already, while his .407 OBP ranked third and his .942 OPS is first in the IL. Last year, Bell got a taste of Triple-A and did basically what he’s doing to the pitching there this year with a .347/.441/.504 in 145 plate appearances. With him moving to first base following the 2014 season, the pressure will be on Bell’s bat to produce from 1B, but the Texas native and former 2nd round pick can hit and that’s exactly what the Bucs have struggled to find for years.

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With Bell graduating from the minors to the major leagues, it marks another milestone to the future and asks the question—could Bell end the Pirates revolving door at the position and provide the consistency that we haven’t on the North Shore in a long time?

I wanted to go back through the years and see how many first basemans have made starts for the Pirates since good ol’ Kevin Young. KY wasn’t a star, but he was about as much of a star that Pirates fans would get in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Young played 11 years of his 12-year career in Pittsburgh and .259/.324/.437 with the Bucs. Not the greatest numbers, but as far as the late 90’s Pirates went, Young was the man. Young’s best season came in 1999 when he put up a 5.6 WAR, hitting .298/.387/.522 and hit 41 doubles, 26 home runs and drove in 106 RBIs. That season didn’t warrant an All-Star nomination and Young was ultimately never an All-Star. Actually to find the last Pirates All-Star at the first base position, you have to go all the way back to Jason Thompson in 1982 and before that, Pops in the 70’s. Yeah…that’s how much of a drought the Pirates have had at first base. And Bell is the first prospect in a while that has a legitimate chance to end that drought.

With Young’s career winding down in 2003, he made 16 starts at first base before being released on June 29. Young would not play another inning in his career and the Pirates would not see a mainstay at the position since. Since 2003, there have been a total of 43 players to at least start a game for the Pirates at first base. I focused on the 20 of them that made at least 25 starts at the position. Yes, that’s 20 players in 13 and a half seasons. Get ready for some of these names from the past…

Randall Simon, Craig Wilson, Matt Stairs, Daryle Ward, Brad Eldred, Sean Casey (the mayor), Xavier Nady (The X-man), Ryan Doumit (No Mitt), Adam LaRoche, Doug Mientkiewicz (lol), Steve Pearce, Garrett Jones (GI Jones!), Jeff Clement, Lyle Overbay (Overpay), Derrek Lee, Casey McGehee, Gaby Sanchez, Ike Davis, Pedro Alvarez and John Jaso.

What a collection of star caliber talent there! I’ve never seen a group of such spare parts, two-year stop gaps, projects and downright crap. Simon was most known for knocking a running sausage down with his bat, Clement was a failed project of epic proportions that still gives me the shakes when I hear his name, Overbay was indeed “Overpaid,” we were so happy to finally acquire Ike and then couldn’t wait for him to go while if you look closely next time you’re at PNC Park, you can still see Pedro making errors at first base, LaRoche was probably the most steady of all in this group but his slow starts in April were brutal to watch and Gaby…oh my word.

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Lee may have been the most short-term success at the position as he tore up 28 games (.337/.398/.584) in 2011 after the Pirates acquired him as a rental at the deadline, but the jagoff turned down $8.5M the next season to retire instead of spend another minute in a Pirates jersey.

Eldred was supposed to be the next great power hitter for the Pirates. “Big Country” as he was called for his bat and 6’6, 270-lb frame, hit 30 home runs in 60 games over two seasons at Double-A Altoona in 2005. He came up to much fanfare and belted 14 home runs in 74 games for the Bucs in ’05 and ’07, but struggled to hit anything else with a slash line of .199/.251/.419 in 74 total games with the Bucs to the tune of a -1.2 WAR. He tried to catch on in Colorado and Detroit and was out of MLB after just 299 plate appearances. To his credit, he’s still mashing away actually in the Japan Central League with 16 homers through 66 games.

LaRoche was probably the player with the best career to play 1B for the Bucs since 2003, but even his three seasons with the team was marred by fans being so down on him for his epic slow starts. LaRoche hit 58 home runs with an OPS of .809 in three years with the Bucs, but was never given much credit and was dealt to the Red Sox in July of 2009 for Argenis Diaz and Hunter Strickland. LaRoche moved up on and ended up turning in a nice career with the Nationals and White Sox, hitting 132 home runs after leaving the Bucs before retiring this offseason after the Sox wouldn’t let his son into the clubhouse for every game.

McGehee had a forgettable 92 games with the Bucs in 2012 while Sanchez came with such promise from the Marlins and ended up being awful even though he somehow produced a 0.6 WAR. Doumit had the highest WAR, but much of that came from catching as he played first base sparingly. Stairs had a stupid good offensive 121 games with the Bucs, but was not resigned after the ’03 season.

GI Jones might have been my favorite of this bunch as he was as much of a cog at 1B for the Bucs as anyone has been in the past 13 years with five consistent years with the Bucs after they found him as a Twins cast off that was never given the chance. Jones provided some consistency, big home runs and some great moments and recorded a 4.9 WAR, but by the time the Pirates got him at age 28, he was past his prime and trending downward by age 32.

As far as the whole list of the other players that have started a game at first base for the Bucs, here we go. Hold onto your butts…

Carlos Rivera, Ty Wigginton (lol), Rob Mackowiak, Jose “K” Hernandez (KKKKKKK), Joe Randa, Josh Phelps, Chris Gomes, Eric Hinske (oh God), Bobby Crosby (not Sid), John Bowker, ANDY LaRoche, Brandon Wood (minor league Babe Ruth, major league Brandon Wood), Matt Hague (the hit collector!), Justin Morneau (power disappeared after Bucs acquired him), Travis Ishikawa, Andrew Lambo (yikes), Aramis Ramirez (second time around), Sean Rodriguez, Mike Morse, Corey Hart (when does he wear his sunglasses?), Francisco Cervelli, David Freese and Jason Rogers.

All you have to do is look at the rentals acquired at the deadline in the last five years to know that there’s been a major problem at first base. They traded for Derrek Lee, Morneau, Ramirez and McGehee just in the last five years to try to fill the hole at first base.

It’s been a lot of mediocre names, headaches and subpar performances out of the first base position for the Bucs since 2003 and even beyond that. Can Josh Bell change all that? Can he end the misery at the position and provide the stability they need? We’re about to find out when Bell takes the field at first base at PNC Park this weekend as he looks to become the last one in the line of 43 others.


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