Defensive versatility next step for Bell

Young slugger will work during offseason to be ready to play 1B, OF in 2017

Defensive versatility next step for Bell

PITTSBURGH -- Josh Bell's bat made him one of the top prospects in the Pirates' system. But when the 24-year-old left his end-of-season exit interview with manager Clint Hurdle and general manager Neal Huntington, he was thinking mostly about his defense.

Bell was exclusively a right fielder from the time he was drafted in 2011 until he went to the Arizona Fall League in '14, when he became exclusively a first baseman. Now, after a reintroduction to right field in July, he's both. The Pirates will expect him to handle infield and outfield duties when he reports to Spring Training in February, and Bell is up for the challenge.

"That's going to be my main focus, making sure I'm more versatile next year," said Bell, MLBPipeline.com's Pirates Player of the Year. "You have a few guys in every lineup that can play all over the field. Those guys are your most valuable players. I hope to be one of those guys next year."

He's still a work in progress at first, and that work will continue later this winter. He'll also take fly balls in the outfield -- something he hasn't done in two years. The Pirates fed him tips about adjusting his arm slot, a tweak that should improve his throwing strength and accuracy.

It's unclear how the Pirates will proceed at first base with Bell, potential corner utility man John Jaso and David Freese, but it's become obvious that versatility is a priority, even if there is little room for playing time in the outfield behind Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen and Gregory Polanco. An offseason trade might clear up the picture, or that flexibility may lead to more days off for veteran players.

Bell eventually could settle into one spot for good. He might be an everyday first baseman who bounces to right field when a starting outfielder sits. Or the Bucs could use Bell in right behind ground-ball pitchers and at first when there might be more balls hit to the outfield.

Either way, it appears Bell is a prominent part of Pittsburgh's plans. The switch-hitting rookie batted .273/.368/.406 with three homers, 19 RBIs and more walks (21) than strikeouts (19) in 45 games. Huntington and Hurdle raved about his plate discipline and swing mechanics. He's a good fit in the No. 2 spot -- where he spent most of his time this past season -- due to his rare blend of patience, power and contact rate.

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"Nobody's perfect, but he does a great job of getting his pre-pitch movement out of the way, gets his foot down, gets himself in a good hitting position," Huntington said. "Exceptional -- exceptional -- barrel-to-ball skill."

Bell instantly showed an all-fields approach that reflected one of Hurdle's favorite hitting philosophies: Hit the ball hard where it's pitched. But Bell still believes he can hit for more power in the Majors. He had to adjust this year to offspeed pitches on the inner half of the plate, something he didn't see much in Triple-A.

"Hopefully next year I'll be ready to start turning on balls a little better," Bell said. "If I can do that, that's when I'll start putting up the numbers I'll be more proud of."

Bell would take just as much pride, if not more, in becoming a dependable defender at two positions.

"It's all about work. It's all about effort. He's going to give you the work and the effort," Hurdle said. "You have to like the battle in the box. Sometimes you have to give to get, and our thoughts and beliefs are we can help him improve defensively."

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, read his blog and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.