Melvin Mora's second half of 2008 left a lot of optimism for 2009, but at 37 years old he has been unable to recapture whatever he found last year. Ty Wigginton, 31, was signed for two years to fill in at both corner infield spots, but the long-term future at third has left a lot to be desired.
In the last three years, three guys have been considered as "the next third baseman" for the Orioles. Starting at the end of August in 2007, Scott Moore came over from the Chicago Cubs, along with former reliever Rocky Cherry, for Steve Trachsel. Injuries and ineffectiveness have kept Moore in triple-A Norfolk. The former first round pick (8th overall) of the Detroit Tigers has played in just 21 games with the Orioles and in just 110 minor league games over the last two seasons. The 25-year-old has not played since May 14 of this year.
The next person who got a shot came over in another big trade for the Orioles. Mike Costanzo was acquired as a part of the trade that sent Miguel Tejada to the Houston Astros before the 2008 season. The power-hitting third baseman mashed 27 home runs, a career high, in 2007 while with the Reading Phillies and was immediately inserted into Norfolk for the 2008 season.
Costanzo's average dipped from .270 to .261, not uncommon for a power hitter in Harbor Park, but his power production fell to just 11 home runs and he slugged just .395 on the season. He earned a repeat shot at Norfolk and his struggles got worse, hitting just .206 in 22 games with no home runs this year. He was demoted to double-A Bowie and is now out for what appears to be the rest of the season. He recently had surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee.
Then there was Brandon Snyder. While the consideration was never really committed with him at third base, he has played in a handful of games in his minor league career at the hot corner. The righty has played nearly all of his games at first since losing the catcher's gear in 2007. He has shown great improvement on the right side of the diamond this season.
This brings the Orioles to Josh Bell. Another big, powerful, third baseman. The 22-year-old switch-hitting prospect was drafted in the fourth round of the 2005 First-Year Player Draft by the Dodgers and has been off to a hot start with the Baysox. While he has switched organizations, he tries to keep the same approach.
"I think [my goals are] the same as what they had been with the Dodgers," Bell told InsideTheOs.com. "Everyday getting better. I've been trying to play at the next level."
The switch of organizations also provides Bell with a different type of opportunity. The Dodgers' third baseman, Casey Blake, was signed through 2011. First base appears to be occupied by James Loney for the foreseeable future as well.
In Baltimore, Mora may not be back after 2009 (the Orioles hold an option for 2010), Aubrey Huff's contract expires at the end of this year and Wigginton is only signed through 2010.
"It definitely is a positive," Bell said of the possibility of openings at the Major League level. "It doesn't mean much if I don't show it and I don't perform, so I still just mainly focus on what I need to do."
"You think about it, but everyone tells you that you never know what could happen. You never want to look to see who's in front of you. You think about it, but you kind of throw it out and worry about what you got to do."
There are still questions on whether the 6-3, 235 pound prospect will be able to stick at third base. The mobility issue in regards to range and agility have some thinking he may be destined for first base. More concerning, though, is how his left knee is reacting to surgery he had last year. He only played in 51 games in 2008.
"I had a divot in my cartilage on the inner part of my knee," Bell explained. "[The cartilage] is pretty much like a shock absorber when you jump. Mine, I had a divot where that was. They had to drill on that top bone, let it bleed down and build new cartilage."
Prior to being traded, Bell said a lot of his focus and work with the Dodgers had been regaining some of his athleticism and improving in the field.
"I had been working on lateral movements, keeping my feet quick," Bell said.
Bell is still confident he can handle third base and told ITO that "definitely, I think I see myself playing there."
Offensively, Bell said he had been working on "staying through the ball" and that he had been trying to avoid pulling the ball too much.
He described himself as providing a "power guy hitting in the middle of the lineup, hopefully driving in some runs, some doubles and home runs, and hopefully some good defense." Whatever he has been working on since coming to Bowie, it has been working.
In just seven games since the trade, Bell is hitting .435 (10-23) with two doubles, two home runs, four runs batted in and has struck out just five times. Patience and contact have been a big part of his game in 2009. He has struck out 75 times in 357 at-bats but has walked 54 times. His .395 on-base percentage, through Wednesday is the best of his career since his professional debut in 2005 and his .910 on-base plus slugging percentage is just one point off his career high in 2006.
One problem Bell has had in 2009, and his career, has been batting from the right side of the plate. With lefties pitching, he has only hit .204 in 2009 (.250 for his career). Batting left-handed, though, he is hitting .344 this year (.303 career) with all 13 of his home runs. From the right side he only has four doubles in 108 at-bats and is slugging just .259 with a .540 OPS. His OPS from the fright side is over 1.000.
Though Josh Bell is not yet a finished product, he is the new No. 1 third base prospect in the organization.