Josh Bell, coming off knee surgery, prepared for the season by working out with Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker at IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., in the offseason.
By Michael Sanserino Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- There hasn't been any hesitation from Josh Bell this season. Not on the basepaths. Not in the outfield.
Bell, one of the Pirates' most promising prospects, trusts his body again, more than one year after a torn meniscus in his left knee ended his 2012 season. That's an encouraging sign for everybody concerned with the young outfielder's development.
"I think I gained most of that in spring training," Bell said. "When I had my first diving catch in the outfield, that really helped. Day by day, I grow more confident in my body and what I can do."
The Pirates drafted Bell, 20, in the second round of the 2011 amateur draft. A first-round talent who had most teams convinced he would honor his scholarship commitment to the University of Texas, Bell signed with the Pirates for $5 million, a record for a second-round pick.
But the injury within the first month of his pro career presented early adversity to this switch-hitter.
After months of rehabilitation and an offseason training regimen that included group workouts with Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez at IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., Bell is playing as if he was never injured, said Michael Ryan, manager of the Class A West Virginia Power.
"He busts his tail down the line and running the bases," Ryan said. "That's the first tell-tale sign if there was something to be nervous about. There has not been one situation where he's come in and said he's sore or anything to our training staff.
"You cannot tell at all, which hats off to him for his hard work in the offseason. The doctors did a great job."
Through Monday, Bell was hitting .280 with six home runs and 38 RBIs in 48 games for West Virginia. Had it not been for the injury, Bell likely would be playing with Class A Bradenton this season, and it is still possible he is promoted there before the end of 2013.
But, assistant general manager Kyle Stark said, the Pirates are in no hurry to move Bell out of West Virginia.
"We're typically not a group that's in a rush to move guys early," he said.
The biggest key for Bell this season, Stark said, is to play every day and get at-bats. That he has not been limited by the meniscus injury "has been huge," Stark said.
"He just needs reps," he said. "He needs to go play. He needs to learn. The focus has been getting a season's worth of at-bats. So far, we've been able to do that."
Bell turned to McCutchen and Walker while training with them this offseason for advice about maintaining and preventing injuries. McCutchen gave him tips he learned when recovering from a torn ACL in high school.
Both players told Bell about the differences between metal and molded cleats, and Bell said he recently made the switch to playing primarily with molded cleats, which are made of rubber.
"It's definitely taken a load off my lower body," he said.
Without having to worry about his body, Bell can focus on the aspects of his game that could make him the star outfielder the Pirates drafted him to be.
Unlike most switch-hitters, Bell has been hitting from both sides since he first started playing baseball. His dad, Earnest, taught him to be a switch-hitter as a child, and Bell took turns hitting from each side of the plate every other at-bat -- until he was 13.
A lot of switch-hitters are using their first few professional seasons to grow comfortable from both sides of the plate. Bell can focus on other issues.
He said he is having a better offensive start this season than he did in 2012 before the injury. His power numbers have improved, his strikeouts have decreased.
"The separator is the consistency," Stark said. "It's every day, it's every swing, it's every pitch. I think he's understanding that."
Bell by the numbers
With Class A West Virginia Power in South Atlantic League (through Monday):