The Pirates hired former shortstop Jay Bell as their new hitting coach, the team announced Wednesday, one of a few coaching changes aimed at areas of weakness this past season.
They also installed Class A West Virginia manager Rick Sofield as their first-base coach and added special assistant to the general manager Dave Jauss to the major league coaching staff.
Bell replaces Gregg Ritchie, the hitting coach the past two seasons who became George Washington University's head baseball coach shortly after the season ended. Sofield replaces Luis Silverio, who will serve as a senior advisor to the club's Latin American operations.
Bell and Sofield, who also takes over for Silverio as the club's base-running and outfield coach, represent new faces in charge of the team's performance at the plate and on the bases, both areas that plagued the Pirates . Bell does not have much experience as a hitting coach -- before joining the Pirates, he served as hitting coach of Class AA Mobile in the Arizona Diamondbacks' organization -- but general manager Neal Huntington said he liked Bell's approach.
"He's a great person," Huntington said of Bell. "He brings energy and enthusiasm for helping players get better. Had a lot of success as a player himself after going through some initial struggles. He's got experience on the major league bench."
Bell, 46, faces the task of strengthening an offense that ranked 14th among 16 National League teams in batting average and on-base percentage and suffered an historic dry spell to start the season. He has some power to work with, as the Pirates' 170 home runs ranked fourth in the NL.
Bell started his career with the Minnesota Twins, who drafted him in the first round in 1984, but made his major league debut with the Cleveland Indians after the Twins sent him there in a trade that included pitcher Bert Blyleven. He played three seasons for the Indians before they traded him to the Pirates in '89.
Bell hit .269 with 78 home runs in eight seasons with the Pirates before playing for Kansas City, Arizona and the New York Mets. He scored the winning run in Game 7 of the '01 World Series when Luis Gonzalez singled off Yankees closer Mariano Rivera to give the Diamondbacks a World Series title.
He holds the Pirates' record for sacrifice bunts in a season.
Bell was the Diamondbacks' bench coach in 2005-06 and a spring-training instructor for three years after that. He currently is coaching New Zealand's national team in its quest to qualify for the World Baseball Classic next year.
Jauss, 55, served as a special assistant to Huntington this season, at times acting as an advance scout.
He previously served as a bench coach for the New York Mets, Baltimore Orioles and Los Angeles Dodgers. Jauss said he talked with manager Clint Hurdle as the end of the season neared about what his role with the organization would be, and it remains somewhat open-ended.
"We talked a lot of generalities," Jauss said by phone from the Dominican Republic, where he is managing Estrellas de Oriente of the Dominican Winter League. "He has a real keen idea of what the overall position can be."
Sofield, 55, faces the task of improving the Pirates' base-running and maximizing the speed of Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte, as well as solidifying Marte and Jose Tabata's outfield defense.
"In Rick, we're going to bring in a guy that brings that long-time minor league track record in terms of teaching and energy and positivity and knowledge and the ability to impact baserunners, the ability to impact outfielders," Huntington said.
Before managing the Power this season, Sofield spent four seasons as the head coach at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort.
He previously worked for the Pirates as a minor league field coordinator in '02 and managed in the minors for several years.
Bill Brink: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @BrinkPG. First Published November 1, 2012 4:00 AM