With Jose Osuna putting up huge numbers (four HR in 25 ABs) and Josh Bell struggling with his timing as he returns from knee surgery this spring, some Pirates fans are beginning to question why Bell is in line to be the Opening Day first basemen for Pittsburgh. The answer to this question is not very complicated, but it is a two-part answer.
Bell is a switch hitter with superior bat speed from both sides of the plate, and his primary focus this spring is to get his defensive play at first base up to standard. This brings us to question of “what happens to Osuna as the Pirates break camp?” Many Pirates fans are not very familiar with the name Jose Osuna because he ranks in the bottom third of the team’s top 30 prospects. Despite being a player who just recently made the top 30 prospects list again, Osuna does have some noteworthy skills that will earn him a spot on the Pirates roster in the near future. Osuna does have power, even though it has only been shown in short flashes throughout his minor league career. Other areas of his offensive game are noteworthy, even though his defensive game is subpar in each of the positions that he currently logs innings at. The answer to the above question is simple, but we will get to that after some introductory information is presented to help paint a clearer picture on what it is that Osuna brings to the table.
Osuna introduced himself to the Pirates fan base this spring by hitting tape measure shots out of LECOM Park in Bradenton, Florida. With the public perception in Pittsburgh being that the Pirates are a team that lacks power, Osuna represents the star out of nowhere who could get the Pirates back to being the team they were with Alvarez and Walker. For the die-hard fans who follow spring training, we have seen a few different players set the world on fire in Florida for spring training without amounting to anything at the MLB level. The most recent of which, was Matt Hague hitting all those home runs in spring training 2012. The good news for Osuna is that he is not a hitter who takes a similar approach at the plate to Pedro, while being a bigger and stronger player than Walker. Is Osuna another Matt Hague? Even though Osuna currently ranks 27th on MLB Pipeline’s top 30 Pirates Prospect List, he possesses significantly more natural baseball talent than Hague. Osuna’s track record as a professional baseball player suggests that he has the talent to be an everyday player at the MLB level, but he is not likely to be a star who joins the 50 home run club.
The Pirates young first basemen actually came up through the minor leagues with a group of talented prospects that have now become very familiar to the Pirates fans. Osuna played at the Low-A West Virginia Power with teammates Bell, Gregory Polanco, Willy Garcia and Alen Hanson. At the time, Osuna was expected to reach a ceiling somewhere in the area that his recent power has suggested that he can achieve.
His limitations on the defensive side were noteworthy however. Up until recently, Osuna has been a below average defender at either corner outfield position. His defense at first base has often played in the average range, but any week where he commits more than one error at first base, is a below average defensive week for him. He has never had a quick first step, good lateral quickness or straight line speed worth taking note of. All of this has factored in to label Osuna as a bat first player with his defensive home being the one position on the field where it is most difficult to impact the outcome of a game, according to a variety of metrics. The outlook on Osuna’s defense has taken an upward turn recently however, as he has reported to camp after shedding some weight from his large frame. The Pirates asking Osuna to be more versatile defensively has resulted in him taking ground balls at third base recently. Not only that, but Pirates fans have tuned in to see at least average defense in innings where Osuna has played corner outfield, along with at least average defense from him at first base.
Osuna’s hitting ability is the area of his game that he has leaned on in order to advance from each level of the Pirates minor league system. When he hit 16 home runs and slugged .454 in a full season league for West Virginia, Osuna appeared to be well on his way to becoming a prospect known for his power. However, Osuna followed that up with his worst full season in 2013, batting .244 with 8 home runs and slugging just .358 for High-A Bradenton. A solid bounce back campaign while repeating the level still left his prospect status in doubt, because he produced only 10 home runs and 36 extra base hits. Osuna drifted through the minors while posting decent numbers combined with Bradenton and Double-A Altoona in 2015, but it was his showing in the Venezuelan Winter League following that season that opened some eyes. Appearing in 59 games for Margarita in Venezuela, Osuna was off to his typical unspectacular start, but late in that season Osuna caught fire at the plate. He had even the Venezuelan pitchers with the best velocity, believing that he was paying Miguel Cabrera to take his at bats for him. Every fastball on the inner half that he saw late in that season was rocketed to the pull field. This resulted in noteworthy production in a 59-game schedule where Osuna batted .330 with nine home runs and 13 doubles in 212 at-bats.
With Osuna currently going through a hot streak similar to what he produced in Venezuela following the 2015 season, he has Pirates fans believing that he is the next superstar first basemen in Pittsburgh. The answer to the two questions posed above, are that Osuna is probably not the next big thing in Pittsburgh and he will go to Triple-A Indianapolis to start the 2017 season. Osuna has noteworthy skills that will make him a good MLB player in the near future, but unless he reaches his absolute ceiling in every facet of his game, it will be hard to consider him to be a superstar at any point in his MLB career.
With Bell slated to make the Opening Day start at first base this season for the Bucs, the fans will be seeing a 10th different Opening Day starter at the position in 10 seasons. Based on the 2018 Opening Day pitching matchup, and the health of Bell, there is a chance that Osuna could extend that streak to 11 straight seasons. With that said, Osuna will look to find his role on the Pirates through adding versatility to his game and breaking into the big leagues as a strong role player who gets close to 300 plate appearances a season at a variety of different positions. This does not close the door on his potential to earn an everyday role for the team at some point in the future, with Josh Harrison and Adam Frazier being the best examples of how Osuna will make his initial impact.