It would be easy for Bubba Bell to get lost in the fray of a Pawtucket outfield that included the likes of Ryan Kalish, Josh Reddick, Darnell McDonald, Jeremy Hermida, and Daniel Nava in 2010. But Bell showed as much consistency as any of his outfield teammates this past season, hitting .293/.366/.399 in 104 games for the PawSox and landing among the team leaders in hits, batting average and on-base percentage.
A 39th-round pick in the 2005 draft out of Nicholls State University in Louisiana, Bell has had a roller-coaster career during his six years in the Red Sox system. As typical for any 39th-rounder, he saw sporadic playing time in his first two seasons in the organization. However, Bell thrived when given the opportunity, highlighted by a run in which the outfielder hit .429/.495/.637 in 23 games with short-season Lowell in 2006.
The Red Sox awarded Bell with a starting job at High-A Lancaster in 2007, and he proved worthy of the role right out of the box. In 76 games with the JetHawks, Bell hit .370/.455/.665 with 22 home runs, leading the California League in hitting for the 2007 season. Despite earning a mid-season promotion to Double-A Portland, Bell still managed to compete for the California League triple crown and took home a slew of league honors including All-Star Game MVP, season MVP and Rookie of the Year.
Already 24 at the time of his promotion to Double-A, the outfielder struggled with a quad injury for the second half of the 2007 season, then missed significant time in 2008 with a fractured femur in the same leg. He wasn’t able to get back into a groove during his time in Double-A, and questions cropped up as to whether his 2007 campaign with Lancaster was a fluke and whether he could repeat that earlier success at an age-appropriate level.
Still not fully recovered from his injuries and hampered by soreness in 2009, Bell managed to earn a promotion to Triple-A Pawtucket in June, but hit just .208 in 71 games with the PawSox at the age of 26. Not using the injury as an excuse, Bell attributed his subpar 2009 performance to pressing too hard to return to his previous form, and then losing confidence when he wasn’t able to do so out of the gate.
Last spring, he arrived at camp feeling great and ultimately righted the ship with an injury-free season in 2010, earning a spot on the International League All-Star team in the process.
“I just did a much better job of staying relaxed and not trying to do too much at the plate,” said Bell. “When I trust my ability and stop thinking too much, my numbers turn out much better. I think being healthy also had a lot to do with it.”
Following the season, the 28-year-old decided to play off-season ball with the Caracas Lions of the Venezuelan Winter League.
“I've always wanted to experience winter ball, but I’ve never had the strength after a season to do it,” said Bell. “I felt good mentally and physically after this year and a great opportunity came up with Caracas. I had to jump at the opportunity.”
The differences of playing in a foreign country surfaced almost immediately, particularly after Bell started his VWL campaign with a 2-for-17 stretch.
“The fans here and the game atmosphere are completely different than that in the States,” said Bell. “The fans are on at 100 percent throughout the entire game. It’s really wild. I’m already getting booed because I’m not producing like the fans here think I should. It’s been pretty difficult, but I know they’ll forget about my struggles when I get into a groove.”
Just as it’s difficult for Latin players to adjust to a different culture in the United States, it can be difficult for American players to get quickly accustomed to the Latin culture.
“I have a general knowledge of the language, but everything goes out the window when you’re forced to try and speak and interact on a day-to-day basis,” said Bell. “I find my high school Spanish and talks with our Latin guys in the States wasn’t the preparation I thought it would be.”
Looking beyond the winter league, Bell will be eligible for the Rule 5 Draft this December unless he’s added to Boston’s 40-man roster by Nov. 20. Whether or not he gets picked up by another team, the outfielder hopes that he’ll get a major league opportunity soon.
“I think I'll get my shot if I continue to do what I did this past season,” said Bell. “It’s totally out of my hands -- the right situation at the right time has to come up. I just have to make sure that I’m ready when that happens.”
He’ll continue to put his work in this off-season to prepare for when that opportunity arises.
“I want to focus on keeping a good effort level at the plate and staying in the middle of the field,” said Bell. “I know I need to continue to play good defense, run the bases well, and, of course, stay healthy. Being on the field and available is as big a part as any when it comes to getting a call-up.”
Fall & Winter League Notes
All eight of Boston’s Arizona Fall League players have seen game action with Peoria since the start of the AFL season on Oct. 12. Top prospect Casey Kelly impressed in his first two starts, going 1-0 with a 1.00 ERA and 6 strikeouts in 9 innings, all while sitting in the 92-94-mph range with his fastball. But Kelly struggled mightily in his third appearance on Monday, allowing 8 runs and 8 hits in just 2 innings of work. His velocity dipped to the 89-91-mph range in the game as well. Kelly should get another start or two with Peoria before heading home for the off-season.
Among the other AFL assignees, Cuban outfielder Juan Carlos Linares would be among the league batting leaders with a .435 average, but remains short of qualifying with only 23 at-bats. Shortstop Jose Iglesias and catcher Ryan Lavarnway are each holding their own early on, hitting .294 and .265, respectively. Relievers Jason Rice (1.80 ERA) and Seth Garrison (1.50 ERA) have looked good in four bullpen appearances each, while Eammon Portice (19.29 ERA) and Dan Turpen (15.75 ERA) have each struggled out of the Peoria ‘pen.
In the VWL, Bell is hitting .273/.360/.364 in 22 at-bats with Caracas, coming off a 4-for-5 game on Sunday. Native Venezuelans Ronald Bermudez and Armando Zerpa have also seen limited time with the Lions. Bermudez, 22, has a hit in five at-bats, while Zerpa has pitched 3.1 scoreless innings in five appearances.
Seven Red Sox players have also appeared in the Dominican Winter League since the league opened this past weekend. Right-hander Robert Coello got the opening-day nod for Licey, going five scoreless innings and earning the win. PawSox reliever Santo Luis and Salem lefty Cesar Cabral are working out of the bullpens for Oriente and Aguilas, each having made one relief appearance. Eric Patterson, Yamaico Navarro, Reddick, and Oscar Tejeda are all getting everyday time with their respective clubs. Pawtucket left-hander Kris Johnson is also slated to work out of the back of the rotation for the Escogido Lions, but has yet to make his first start.
The other Sox players who have appeared in games in Latin America this off-season are pitcher Miguel Gonzalez (Mazatlan of the Mexican Pacific League), left fielder Aaron Bates (Caguas of the Puerto Rican League), third baseman Jorge Jimenez (Mayaguez of the Puerto Rican League), and first baseman Reynaldo Rodriguez (Monteria of the Colombian Winter League).
In Australia, brothers Boss and Moko Moanaroa have appeared in games with Central Coast of the Sydney Major League, but both players are expected to join fellow Aussie Mitch Dening on the roster of the Sydney Blue Sox in the newly formed Australian Baseball League next month. Sydney’s season is scheduled to get underway Nov. 6.
Not a ton of minor league player movement in the off-season thus far. One transaction of note is the signing of 22-year-old switch-hitting center fielder Matty Johnson to a minor league deal. The Sox acquired Johnson’s rights from the Gateway Grizzlies of the independent Frontier League, where he hit .313 with 24 stolen bases in 2010. Shortly after the transaction, Johnson was named the No. 1 independent league prospect of the 2010 season by Baseball America. The Red Sox have now signed Baseball America’s No. 1 indy-league prospect in three of the last four years -- Daniel Nava and Reynaldo Rodriguez took home the honor in 2007 and 2009, respectively. In 2008, the Sox acquired Coello from Edmonton of the independent Golden Baseball League, and he was later recognized as one of the top 10 indy-leaguers to sign with an affiliated club during the off-season.
Elsewhere on the transaction front, Boston outrighted Dusty Brown, Kevin Cash, Rich Hill and Robert Manuel to Pawtucket in order to clear space on the 40-man roster. Cash, Hill and Manuel were all granted free agency, as were Fernando Cabrera, Fabio Castro, Gustavo Molina, Jack Hannahan and Niuman Romero.
Looking ahead, farm system transactions should begin to pick up in early November. Another wave of Red Sox minor leaguers are slated to be eligible for minor league free agency five days after the end of the World Series. Included on that list are Brown, Pawtucket reliever Ramon A. Ramirez, and Portland infielders Nate Spears and Ray Chang.
An additional group of Sox prospects will be eligible for the 2010 Rule 5 unless they’re added to the 40-man roster by Nov. 20. That group includes Bell, Portice, Turpen and Rice, as well as Pawtucket starter Adam Mills, Portland catcher Luis Exposito, Salem pitcher Stolmy Pimentel and Salem second baseman Oscar Tejeda. Rice, Exposito, Pimentel and Tejeda are likely to be added. The Rule 5 draft will be held Dec. 9.
Dec. 2 is the deadline for major league clubs to tender contracts to pre-arbitration players (players with less than 2 years, 122 days of major league service time) on the 40-man roster. Those players will typically receive contracts at or near the league minimum. As of right now, that list includes Clay Buchholz, Daniel Bard, Jed Lowrie, Felix Doubront, Michael Bowden, Mark Wagner, Reddick, McDonald, Nava, Patterson, Kalish, Navarro, Coello, Lars Anderson and Matt Fox. Junichi Tazawa and Jose Iglesias are also both pre-arbitration, but each already has a deal in place for the 2010 season. Similarly, the Red Sox have a 2011 club option on Scott Atchison, who is also pre-arbitration.
Jan. 11 is the deadline for eligible players to file for pre-free agency arbitration. Unsigned players with more than 2 years, 121 days and less than 6 years of service time will be eligible. Of the players presently on Boston’s 40-man roster, Jonathan Papelbon, Jacoby Ellsbury and Hideki Okajima are eligible for arbitration this off-season. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who also would have been eligible, avoided arbitration by signing a one-year, $750,00 contract on Oct. 14.
Mike Andrews is the Executive Editor of SoxProspects.com and a special contributor to ESPNBoston.com.