MLB Futures Game: Elite Pirates prospect Josh Bell hitting stride

MINNEAPOLIS -- This past winter, Josh Bell reconnected with his high school hitting coach. Bell hadn't worked much with the coach, Dallas area baseball instructor Brandon Sherard, since Bell's senior year at Dallas Jesuit Prep, but in the winter, after instructional league play ended, they went after it.

"I hit through December, January, February," Bell said. "So coming into spring training I had so much confidence knowing that nobody had hit more than I had, so I should be able to show that on the field and I've been doing that for the most part."

"For the most part" might be an understatement. Bell, 21, a switch-hitting right fielder, hit .333 with a .380 on-base percentage and nine home runs in 83 games with Class A Bradenton. He earned a spot on the U.S. roster Sunday in the Futures Game, an exhibition as part of All-Star festivities featuring some of the most talented prospects in the minors, at Target Field.

Bell entered in right field in the sixth inning in a game the U.S. team won, 3-2. He led off the seventh against Tampa Bay Rays minor league left-hander Enny Romero and worked a full count before grounding out to short.

In addition to the increased work in the batting cage, Bell, the Pirates' preseason No. 7 prospect according to Baseball America, partially credited his improvement on an offseason spent on strength and conditioning instead of rehabilitation. A torn meniscus in his left knee ended his 2012 season early, and the effects carried into 2013.

"Last year was his first full season in professional baseball and he was coming off a fairly significant knee surgery," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said last week. "To combine those two, that's a lot to ask a young man."

Bell spent the winter swinging a 35-inch bat against a pitching machine combined with a projector screen showing a pitcher's delivery. Doing so, Bell said, improved his contact skills and lowered his strikeout rate, from 90 in 519 plate appearances in 2013 to 43 in 357 so far this season.

"It takes a lot for me to swing and miss with my hand-eye coordination after all the reps that I had this offseason," Bell said.

The return of Bell's lower-half strength laid the foundation for the offensive breakout. In late April 2012, his first pro season, he hit a ball to the outfield while at Class A West Virginia. The shortstop faked that he had cut it off, forcing Bell to take a jab step back toward first. When he broke for second again, his left knee gave way.

Bell tore the lateral meniscus, which he said takes longer to heal because less blood flows to that area. Four to six weeks became four to six months and he missed the rest of the season.

"I was pushing for a quicker return," he said. "The Pirates took their time with me. After having the first half that I had, I've really got to give a shout-out to them for really knowing what's best for me better than I did at that time."

Another shout-out went to his father, Earnest, who oversaw Bell's winter conditioning: "Countless lunges, countless squats, countless bunny hops, you name it, shuffling, backwards running, forward running with a weight jacket on, almost every day this past offseason."

Though still in Class A ball, Bell could reach Class AA Altoona by the end of this season or the beginning of 2015. He is not blind to the fact that the Pirates have an outfield full of young players who aren't going anywhere for a while.

"I just try to be the best right fielder I can be for the Marauders right now," Bell said. "Hopefully as my process continues and as I'm getting better every day I can be that everyday guy in the big leagues, too."

Huntington understands the potential logjam and acknowledged the possibility of moving Bell to another position. Bell, listed at 6 feet 3 and 213 pounds, is athletic enough to do it, Huntington said, but the Pirates will wait until Bell is major league-ready and blocked.

"You don't want to make the move too early because who knows, maybe there's something that presents itself a year from now, two years from now, that we need Josh in the outfield or we need player X at position Y and we've moved them off of that because we looked three years down the road," Huntington said.

Bell pays attention to the current task at hand -- serving as Bradenton's right fielder. He tries to make good use of his free time, as well. He just bought a guitar last week and wants to learn to play. He has a pet bearded dragon named T-Rex -- Bell calls him TR -- that lives on the balcony of his apartment.

Such is life as a minor leaguer in Bradenton, Fla. The way Bell is hitting, he won't be there long.

Bill Brink: and Twitter @BrinkPG.

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