November 9, 2010

Great Pirates in History: Jay Bell

Jay Bell was a quintessential shortstop of his era: durable, steady in the field, able to advance runners and bunt out of the #2 hole, and possessing doubles power, speed and on base ability. The Bonilla-Bonds-Van Slyke outfield is well remembered, but Bell was a no less essential player to the 1990-92 division champions.

Early Days
The Twins drafted Bell with the eighth overall pick in 1984 as a high school shortstop out of Florida. He was hitting well in A ball the next year when Minnesota shipped him to Cleveland in a package for another Great Pirate in History, Bert Blyleven. In parts of three seasons with the Tribe, Bell hit only .223/.288/.323 and struggled on defense. Cleveland gave up on their 22-year-old, former top 10 pick, shipping him to the Pirates for fellow poor hitting infielders, Felix Fermin and Denny Gonzalez.

Bell was the Opening Day shortstop in '89 but after a brutal 1-for-20 start, the Pirates quickly sent him back to AAA Buffalo for more seasoning.He hit well in the minors, as he always had, and was starting again in the big leagues by late July. He hit well enough this time to end up in the #2 spot in the lineup - a spot he wouldn't relinquish for seven years. Jim Leyland's group was 18 games below .500 when Bell became a starter but finished 35-31 with him in the lineup. The iconic early '90s lineup had finally come together.

Glory Years
The 1990-91 Pirates went with Bell batting second in front of Van Slyke, Bonilla and Bonds, Bell's double play partner Jose Lind hitting eighth, and a bevy of platoons around them. What had been a mediocre lineup became the league's best.

In 1990, Bell led all NL shortstops with 93 runs and would have scored 100, had he not also broken the an 84-year-old record with 39 sacrifice bunts, still the best in franchise history. He walked 65 times and while he never had great range in the field, used positioning and good double play skills to play an above average shortstop. The following year, he scored 96 more times and again led the league with 30 sacrifice bunts. This time he added power, with 16 home runs among his 56 extra base hits. Playing even better defense now, Bell finished 12th in the '91 MVP voting.

He declined a bit at the plate in '92 but still scored 87 runs. During those seasons, unlike a certain star left fielder, Bell turned things on during the playoffs, hitting .282/.356/.462. Bell was the Pirates' player representative and one of their clubhouse leaders throughout that stretch.

The Pirates inexplicably broke up their first place club for 1993. Bell, the 11th highest paid player on the 1992 team, was now the second highest paid player on the team at $3 million. It was a sad season for the Pirates but a great one for Bell, who had a career year at the plate and in the infield. Playing in 154 games, Bell was on base constantly with 187 hits and another 77 walks. He finished with a .310/.392/.437 batting line and scored 102 runs despite having no power hitters behind him in the lineup. That earned him a Silver Slugger award. He also led the league in putouts, assists, and fielding percentage, and became the first NL shortstop not named Ozzie Smith to win a Gold Glove in 14 years.

Three and Out
In 1994, the Pirates fielded a sorry offense that finished last in the league in runs. Nevertheless, Bell was on a 97 run pace when the strike came and hit a remarkable 35 doubles in only 110 games. Hitting .276/.353/.441, he turned in his second best offensive season in Pittsburgh.

The '95 Pirates slumped to 58-86 as Bell, Orlando Merced and Jeff King were now the only links to the glory years which ended only three seasons before. Bell slumped to .262/.336/.404. In 1996, playing for another poor team, he .250/.323/.391. The already penny-pinching Pirates overlooked his defensive value and concluded that Jay Bell could no longer be a Pirate, not at a salary that had now risen to $5 million a year.

Pittsburgh promptly shipped the right side of their infield - Bell and Jeff King - to the Royals. King was a #3 hitter who had just hit 30 home runs and driven in 111 runs in 1996. Bell was a Gold Glove shortstop who over the last seven years had a .341 on base percentage and averaged 31 doubles and 84 runs scored a season, even though two of those seasons were strike shortened.For both players the Pirates got Joe Randa - an average player who they thought enough of to lose in the expansion draft a year later - and three pitchers who combined to win three MLB games over the rest of their careers.

"Yet another reason the Pirates had a lot of fans," a fan wrote to the Post-Gazette. "Trading Jay Bell and Keff King is the ultimate slap in the face to the fans," wrote another.

The 1997 Pirates famously stayed in the pennant race until the season's final weekend despite not having any star players. Yet it didn't need to be like that. Now playing in Kansas City, King had 84 runs scored, 28 home runs, 112 RBI, 89 walks and 16 steals. Bell rebounded with 89 runs scored, 21 home runs, 92 RBI, 71 walks and 10 steals. Pittsburgh finished five games out of first playing Joe Randa, Kevin Polcovich, Dale Sveum and Kevin Elster at Bell and King's vacated positions. Pirates fandom might not be that different right now if this trade hadn't gone down. But there would be quite a few more fans who could remember playoff baseball, and at least we wouldn't be talking about a record number of losing seasons.

Jay Bell had several more good years in Arizona, culminating in a World Series ring in 2001. He was the heart and soul of the only good Pirates teams many of us can remember, and for that he is a Great Pirate in History.

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