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Bell gives Pirates glimmer of hope for next year and beyond as a potential star

CBS Sports logo CBS Sports 9/6/2019 Matt Snyder
Sep 1, 2019; Denver, CO, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman Josh Bell (55) reacts in the fifth inning against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field. © Provided by CBS Interactive Inc.

Sep 1, 2019; Denver, CO, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman Josh Bell (55) reacts in the fifth inning against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field.

At some point in the very near future, the Pittsburgh Pirates are going to be eliminated from postseason contention. They are likely to lose more than 87 games, which would make this their worst season since 2011. The Andrew McCutchen-Starling Marte core made the playoffs three times, but only advanced past the Wild Card Game once and never made the NLCS. 

At this point, I think it's safe to say that window of contention is closed. With Marte having two rather affordable club options and heading toward his age-31 season, I'd argue the time is right to deal him and stock up on high-level prospects. The Pirates then have to hope their star to build around is Josh Bell

Heading into the season, that wasn't on the table. Bell was a career .260/.348/.436 (110 OPS+) hitter. As a first baseman who doesn't add much value on the bases, that's not someone who is even remotely close to a star. 

Bell made adjustments, though, and has looked the part of superstar at times through the season. 

"I made a lot of mechanical adjustments. I'm more upright with my barrel, which just allows me to ride out my back side a little longer and hit balls out in front," Bell said. "I feel like if you can hit balls out in front of your body, you're gonna hit more balls in the air. With the velocity these days all you gotta do is get the ball in the air and it's gonna travel, so I'm just trying to do that." 

Here's a highlight from last season: 

And now this season: 

Note the barrel to start the swing and, really, his entire body is more upright. There's a lot better follow-through as well. It's worked well for the most part. Bell is hitting .280/.367/.578 (141 OPS+) with 37 doubles, 36 homers and 112 RBI. That's the line of an offensive star. 

Consistency needs to come next, though. Bell has been incredibly streaky. Let's pick out some of the streaks. 

  • From April 28-May 31, Bell hit .394/.446/.787 with 12 homers and 34 RBI in 31 games. 
  • From June 7-June 30, he slashed .192/.316/.423. 
  • From July 6-Aug. 5, he hit .160/.292/.210.
  • In his next five games, he went 9 for 19 (.474) with four homers and nine RBI.
  • He then went 11 games where he hit .105/.222/.211. 
  • In his next 10 games, he hit .368/.478/.684 with four homers and nine RBI. 

We could grab smaller stretches through the first three bullet-points that are similar to the last three. He's been unbelievably streaky throughout the year and there's another word for that: Inconsistent. 

"Every gifted player has a strength," a scout told me. "Sometimes getting there either physically or mentally is a challenge. When you have power like he does, learning how to utilize it comes down to someone believing in his ability as well as the individual learning about himself." 

As noted earlier, with Bell playing the least important -- every position is difficult and important, but, yes, first base is the easiest and least important -- defensive position and not being an outstanding baserunner, his value is all in the bat. With these factors and his inconsistency, his WAR sits at 2.9, which isn't star-caliber. Baseball-reference.com's parameters say 2.0 is an everyday player, 5.0 is a deserving All-Star and 8.0 is an MVP. 

One has to wonder if confidence plays a role here with the streaks. Bell said it plays a factor, but only in a positive way. 

"[Confidence] helps you trust the process with your work day," he said. "It helps you realize that even if things aren't going well right now, they've gone well in the past so it keeps me in a good mindset."

So that's how he's gotten out of his funks. The next step is for him to stop having the extreme valleys. Obviously he's not going to hit .394 with a 1.200+ OPS throughout the season, but that deep second half funk played a role in the Pirates' season falling apart. Moving forward, he needs to find a way to eliminate that. If he does, the Pirates have their future star to build around. Bell is under team control through 2022. 

He certainly has the power numbers. He's sixth in the NL in doubles, eight in home runs and third in RBI. He's second in extra-base hits. 

"He will be one of their middle-of-the-order bats, a threat at the plate that every team is looking for," said a scout. 

Just imagine if he can find consistency. The proverbial sky is the limit. 

Is Josh Bell the next Pirates superstar? The answer lies in his ability to avoid huge slumps moving forward. 

Related slideshow: 2019 MLB season (provided by imagn)

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