BRADENTON, Fla. -- While most seemed genuinely surprised the Pirates drafted Josh Bell and then signed him, they need only to look at the Bell family history to know better.
Bell, the Pirates' second-round pick in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, had already played for the Pirates once before. Granted, it was when he was ages five, six and seven, but it clearly must have been a sign. So was the fact that his mother, Myrtle, was a Pirates fan, connecting with Roberto Clemente despite the fact she grew up in Baton Rouge, La. Perhaps it was preordained.
"I actually think so," Myrtle Bell said.
By now, most know the story. Bell was arguably the best high school bat in the 2011 Draft class. A switch-hitting outfielder with power, he was a sure-fire first round pick. However, he appeared headed to the University of Texas, even sending a letter to all teams to that effect. The Pirates swooped in, took a shot, and were able to sign him in the second round for a way-above slot $5 million.
The prevailing thought was the Pirates took a relatively blind shot in taking Bell, initially figuring there was no way he'd be there for them in the second round. While that second part was true, the fact that Texas area scouting supervisor Mike Leuzinger made an early impression on the Bell family certainly didn't hurt. Virtually every team paid a visit at some point, but since the Bells truly thought Josh was headed to Texas, not many were remembered.
"I remember when Mike came here," Myrtle Bell said. "It was right after Josh performed well in the World Wood Bat Association Championships in Jupiter. He was the first one to show up after Jupiter. I remember him and some of the things he asked were impressive."
Clearly, the Pirates liked the answers they got. What Bell signed for at this point isn't all that relevant. The fact the Bucs thought enough of the teenager, that they felt he'd be able to handle all of the scrutiny based on that bonus, is crucial.
"Every draft selection we take and every decision we make as far as money being invested in guys, we're betting on people," said Pirates assistant general manager Kyle Stark, who oversees the player development side of the organization. "That's both the abilities and who they are as young men, deciding on whether that investment makes sense. [Bell's maturity] certainly factored in. It gave you better confidence that he was going to reach whatever his potential was."
Bell's potential is very large. As Stark put it, "we didn't give him $5 million because he was a good boy." Character is important, but it's Bell's ability to swing the bat from both sides of the plate that has everyone very excited about what he may eventually bring to Pittsburgh's lineup.
While there are many switch-hitters in Major League Baseball these days, there aren't nearly as many who are considered run producers. One, Chipper Jones, announced he's retiring at the end of this season and it's already a fairly small fraternity.
|"It's really nice the Pirates came out and gave me the amount of money, pure faith that I'd turn out as a player for them. I'm doing the best that I can to do that for them."|
|-- Josh Bell|
After a huge senior season, and following that very large bonus, some young players would have shown up feeling on top of the world, that they had everything figured out. Bell's first taste of pro ball came last fall, during instructional league play. It proved to be a true eye opener for Bell and an experience he uses as an excellent motivator.
"I guess that was really necessary," the young outfielder said. "If I had come out and stroked, I probably wouldn't have worked out as hard as I did this offseason. I might have gotten my awakening during Spring Training, which is exactly the wrong period you want to have it. I'm glad I had it when I did.
"It's weird, playing baseball your whole life and then coming out here and realizing you have so much more to learn, whether it be your footing in the outfield or your approach you need to have, at least in this organization, with two strikes. It's just a lot of things you have to learn. I guess I'm working on it every day. I was definitely on a roll in high school, but I knew that would be short-lived and would be for a short period of time."
"I think that was good for him, too," Myrtle Bell agreed. "He's played baseball all his life. When he was at Texas in the summer, they worked out, but it wasn't baseball. He was off from playing baseball from early June until instructs. That was a first for him. The combination of being off and seeing another level of baseball [was tough].
"He's really good at that, at surveying, figuring things out and moving forward."
The Pirates think he's so good at it, there's a very good chance he'll start the year with full-season West Virginia in the South Atlantic League, as opposed to hanging back in extended Spring Training. Stark wouldn't confirm that just yet, with time to evaluate things still on the clock.
The Pirates have, however, shown a willingness to push high school draftees to West Virginia to start their first full year. That's largely been pitching over the past couple of years, but the philosophy behind it remains the same. It's not about sending a finished product to full-season ball, but gauging whether a player's work ethic and character will help him deal with the challenge of the push there. All things point to Bell passing that test easily.
"He's recognizing that we took him where we took him and invested the money we did not because of today, but because of what he can be," Stark said. "He's buying into that concept of getting better every day.
"He brings the necessary work ethic to the challenge in front of him. We're betting on him being able to handle some adversity and the challenge as opposed to thinking he's perfectly ready for that challenge. We're not setting up things hoping a guy is going to perform tonight. Our job is to get guys ready for Pittsburgh, get them to reach their potential. Adversity, in our opinion, is the best thing to help guys grow."
"His father has worked with him all his life and trained him such that he would be ready for the next [level]," Myrtle Bell said, pointing out that her son played against older competition as well as against his father throughout his childhood. "That kind of helped him understand there's a lot to learn, but then, 'I can learn it, yes I can.' That's what you're seeing in him."
Not seeing Josh has been the toughest part of this transition to the pro game for the Bell family. The prevailing thought was that he'd be a couple hundred miles away on campus, coming home from time to time like most college students. Josh is the younger of the two Bell children, so there was some concern about him being so far from home.
"I'm actually really enjoying it," Bell said. "I think it was more so for my parents. They've been out here a couple of times. They actually like it out here. I guess it's weird for them to be gone for such a long period of time. But when you're out here doing the same thing every day, you just get used to it."
"I hope that's the case," Myrtle Bell said when told of her son's attitude about being away. "I'm really having a hard time with it. He's the youngest. You think your child is bound for college. You don't think your child is bound to be working, especially working like this."
Perhaps the most impressive thing is that Bell understands that it's now a job. He knows he's expected to perform, but does it with a twinkle in his eye. Yet, joking about pretending to hit like Major League stars like he did when he was younger probably wouldn't go over so well.
He is clearly a professional now, working hard, spending time with fans twice his age who call him Mr. Bell and ask for his autograph, obliging interview requests with poise and eye contact. A pro who clearly loves his job and understands the investment in his abilities.
"If you're not giving it your all and staying focused out there, you're not going to have the results you want," Bell said. "Guys are trying to take your spot every day. It's definitely a more serious aspect to the game.
"It's really nice the Pirates came out and gave me the amount of money, pure faith that I'd turn out as a player for them," Bell said. I'm doing the best that I can to do that for them."
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.