Pirates outfield prospect Bell gets fresh start after injury

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BRADENTON, Fla. -- It was a little bit of hesitation that spelled doom for Josh Bell in 2012.

After hitting a ball into the outfield in a regular-season game for Class A West Virginia in April, Bell, a highly touted outfield prospect who signed for $5 million, thought about turning a single into a double.

Off the bat, he had second base on his mind, but as he rounded first, he thought he would settle for a single. An instant later, Bell decided to try to leg it out.

Instead, his leg gave out.

Bell felt a sharp pain on the outside of his left knee and couldn't make it to second. After he made it to the training room, he couldn't walk anymore.

He had surgery for a torn meniscus and never returned to action. The Pirates initially expected him to return in the second half of the season, but his rehabilitation was on the back end of the four- to six-month time frame.

"It pretty much shot my whole season," he said.

One year later, Bell, 20, is one year behind where he hoped to be. Instead of advancing to Class A Bradenton for his second professional season, Bell will start 2013 in West Virginia again.

"I was disappointed for him," said Pirates baserunning coach Rick Sofield, who managed West Virginia in 2012. "Everybody understands how frustrating, how complicated that becomes medically. Especially for a young guy who's trying to make his way -- who was the team's No. 2 pick and wants to show why."

Three miles away from McKechnie Field, where dozens of players are fighting for a spot on a major league roster, Bell is among more than 100 players at Pirate City, taking small steps to one day get that chance.

"He looks in great, physical shape," general manager Neal Huntington said. "And he's swung the bat very well this spring."

This switch-hitting outfielder represents a significant investment for the Pirates. While many teams passed on Bell for fear that this "can't-miss" prospect was determined to fulfill his scholarship at the University of Texas, the Pirates took a chance on him in the second round. His signing bonus is the largest for a second-round draft pick in major league history.

Bell said he rarely thinks back to that decision. And he does not regret turning pro, especially in light of the injury. He said he couldn't imagine what rehabilitation would have been like outside of the care of a major league organization.

He spent most of the year in Bradenton, living in a house with his dad as he tried to get healthy. He did strength-training exercises in the sand and, once he was cleared, did hitting drills with his dad.

"It was good to have a parental figure in the house," Bell said.

He was cleared to resume all baseball activities in December. After Christmas, he started working out at IMG Academies in Bradenton and eventually joined a training group of professional players, including Pirates Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez.

"I watched him swing both sides, and I was really, really impressed," said Walker, also a switch-hitter. "He was one of the strongest guys in our group. He and Pedro were probably the strongest guys in our group."

There, Bell said, he got a chance to be a student. He talked with Alvarez about how to get his timing and swing down in the spring. He talked with Walker about tips for being a switch-hitter. He learned from McCutchen about how to handle success.

But most important, Bell said, he learned "hard work pays off."

With his teens behind him, Bell is learning how to take care of his body. He's paying more attention to what he eats, how he stretches and the quality of his workouts. It's all part of the progression of a young player learning what it takes to be a professional, Sofield said.

"These are all elements that are unrecognizable on the front of a baseball card," he said. "He was just getting into a flow, and he got hurt."

Having gone through that experience as a 19-year-old prospect, Bell might be in a better position to prevent serious injury from happening to him again, Sofield said.

"He'll remember being hurt," he said, "and won't want to be hurt again."

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Michael Sanserino: msanserino@post-gazette.com and Twitter: @msanserino. First Published March 20, 2013 4:30 AM


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