Heralded prospect Bell back to restart climb up Pirates' ladder
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Their willingness to spend unprecedented money to sign outfielder Josh Bell suggests the Pittsburgh Pirates believe they have a much-needed middle-of-the-order guy who soon will contribute to the organization's long-awaited renaissance.
If nothing else, the $5 million signing bonus they gave Bell in 2011 - the highest ever paid to a player not taken in the first round - has helped dispel the organization's cheapskate image.
They needed to pay that much - which violated baseball's suggested bonus-payment system - to convince Bell to abandon his plans to attend the University of Texas and play professionally.
The 20-year-old Bell, a 6-foot-3, 235-pound Dallas-area native who was taken in the second round of the 2011 draft, made his pro debut as the West Virginia Power's right fielder a year ago.
But because of a nasty injury suffered shortly thereafter, he will again play right field and bat third for the Power in the team's South Atlantic League opener at 7:05 p.m. Thursday against the Asheville Tourists at Appalachian Power Park.
If all goes well, the versatile Bell should hit for power and high average, learn the intricacies of outfield play and rise quickly through the Pirate system.
"Our goal,'' first-year Power manager Michael Ryan said Tuesday at APP, "is for him not to be here long.''
For now, Ryan added, Bell should be quite an attraction.
"This is a special player you don't see very often, a special player that might not come through Charleston in a long time,'' he said. "He's the type of guy that people are going to come out and pay to watch him play. He's going to be exciting to watch.''
Bell struggled a bit in his first week with the Power last year but began hitting effectively and looking comfortable. But while running the bases in late April at Appalachian Power Park, he stopped suddenly between first and second base, tried to change directions and suffered a season-ending meniscus tear in his knee.
At first, doctors said he'd be back in uniform in June, but the injury was more serious than they originally thought, keeping him out of action until spring training.
"Doctors first thought my recovery period would be a lot shorter than it was,'' Bell said Tuesday at APP.
Although Bell was able to begin painful workouts within six weeks of the injury, the swelling in his knee had not yet subsided and he was not cleared to play. The Pirates told him to wait until spring training to resume full workouts.
If not for the injury, Bell would be opening the season either at the Pirates' advanced Class A club in Bradenton, Fla., or their Class AA team in Altoona, Pa.
Bell, the son of a University of Texas-Arlington professor, tries to keep things in perspective.
"It was a little bit of a curveball,'' he said. "It's just a bad bounce that you have to take.''
When spring training arrived, he was at full strength and impressed his new manager.
"He looked tremendous in spring training,'' said Ryan, who spent five seasons as an outfielder for the Minnesota Twins and Los Angeles Angels.
Ryan and hitting coach Orlando Merced, a former Pirates outfielder, will work with Bell on his outfield play.
"We're trying to brush him up a little bit on his defense as far as his route [to the ball],'' said Ryan. "That's going to be his main concern because the guy can hit. He can hit for power. He can run. He can do it all.''
Reach Mike Whiteford at email@example.com.