Bell's Bounce; Pirates 1B eager to prove 2019 was no fluke

WILL GRAVES (AP Sports Writer)
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Bell's Bounce; Pirates 1B eager to prove 2019 was no fluke

Pittsburgh Pirates' Josh Bell takes batting practice during a spring training baseball workout Monday, Feb. 17, 2020, in Bradenton, Fla. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

BRADENTON, Fla. (AP) -- Josh Bell insists he has not arrived. Not yet, though the metric the Pittsburgh Pirates All-Star uses to judge his own progress is highly specific.

Several times a year Bell will order the jersey of a high-profile opposing player and stash it in his locker. At some point during a given series, the jersey will make its way to its namesake with a polite request for an autograph. During a rare interleague West Coast swing last year, Bell hit up three-time American League MVP Mike Trout and three-time NL MVP Albert Pujols for signed swag.

Bell smiles as he tells the story, his inner baseball nerd peeking out as he talks. Over the course of three-plus years in the majors, his memorabilia collection has swelled.

Here's the thing though: No one has asked him to reciprocate. Signed Balls? Sure. But a jersey? Nope. The 27-year-old first baseman is still waiting to see a No. 55 jersey make its way from an opponent's clubhouse to the foot of his locker with a note and a Sharpie attached.

When that happens, Bell figures he'll have finally made it. But he's also not keeping track. There's too much to do for the cornerstone of a team in the midst of an organizational reboot following a last-place finish in the NL Central. Though he hit 37 homers a year ago and almost single-handedly kept the Pirates afloat at times during a promising first half, Bell took the firings of manager Clint Hurdle and general manager Neal Huntington last fall personally.

''I know I felt responsible for all that went down at the end of the year,'' Bell said Tuesday. ''I'm coming in this year, everything is new, everything is fresh and it's a new opportunity to prove ourselves.''

And Bell is eager to show his breakout season wasn't a one-off. His numbers took a precipitous dip in the second half, and the switch hitter struggled at times from the right side of the plate. A groin injury prompted the Pirates to shut him down in mid-September, and for all the progress he made while drawing comparisons - both on the field and off - to Hall of Fame first baseman Willie Stargell - it's the opportunities Bell missed that still gnaw at him.

It's why he gave himself all of a week off when the season ended before diving back into his work. Then it was back in the gym, where the broad-shouldered 6-foot-4, 240-pounder became a kettle bell fanatic, focusing on generating more power from the ground up. He concentrated on the way his body hinges as his 35-inch bat rips through the strike zone. Once given the nickname ''Tinker'' Bell because of the way he fidgeted with his swing, Bell is instead doubling down on the approach he developed with batting coach Rick Eckstein a year ago, one Bell admits he's still adjusting too even as they enter their second spring training together.

''It seems like he's saying the same things he's saying last year but it didn't stick with me and I'm like, 'Oh yeah, he said that, if I had just listened in that moment, it could have brought me out of my slump a little sooner,''' Bell said. ''I'm still learning.''

Maybe, but the strides he took last season were impossible to miss.

''He was more controlled for sure,'' right fielder Gregory Polanco said. ''Before he was swinging like crazy, a young guy trying to do too much. Now you can see the power, the bat speed and the control. It's all together now.''

Bell's performance earned him a raise from $587,000 to $4.8 million. It did little, however, to quell the drive that forces him to write personal goals on his mirror with a dry erase marker.

''If you aren't getting the work that you need in, I'm the type of guy that can't sleep at night,'' Bell said. ''So I have to know that I'm on the path that I want to be on in order for me to accomplish what I need to accomplish on a daily basis.''

On a team where just one player - Polanco - remains from the group that made the playoffs three straight years from 2013-15, Bell is the constant the Pirates plan to build around. Though first-year manager Derek Shelton's opening-day lineup is a mystery - particularly to Shelton - Bell is already penciled in to hit cleanup. There are worse ways to start.

''I think when you're that strong and you have an idea of the strike zone like he does, he's just going to continue to get better,'' Shelton said.

Something Bell will do in his own reserved way. He has replaced 2013 NL MVP Andrew McCutchen as the face of the franchise. Though he lacks McCutchen's charisma, like McCutchen he has a deep understanding and respect for the bond between the city and the team. The final two months of 2019 were a fever dream of losses and dissension. He's eager to start anew.

''I've got more to prove this year,''Bell said. ''I'd like to be a guy that's out there every night. I can be a guy that is going to drive in 100 and hit 40 (home runs) and do all things the fans want a corner infielder to do.''

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