When word came that Chad Bell had signed for late second round money last year, I was amazed. The predraft reports on him were that he had a fringy high 80s FB, good command and pitchability, and an AA changeup without much mention of a breaking ball. The reports about him while he was pitching for Cotuit in the Cape Cod League seemed to support this depiction: he was sitting 86-88 and mostly throwing FB/Change with few breaking balls even in his no-hit outing in July. Baseball America didn't even have him in their top 20 Cape Cod prospects list (26th). Everything suggested he should honor his commitment to Tennessee and come out again as a JR.
Then wham, $450,000. After he signed, reports from the Rangers suggested he threw 88-92 or 88-91, which I regarded with some suspicion. I had him pegged as a fringy back roto guy, but given what they paid him, I entertained the idea that he threw a little harder than advertised and that the Cap Cod blogs, longstanding though they were, might not be all that reliable. If he did indeed sit 90 as a lefty and wielded a really good change then we just needed a little more info on his breaking pitch. If it was at least average then maybe one could revise his ceiling up from a 4/5 to a 3/4 but probably not a solid #3.
So spring training rolls around and we get a couple of reports from the 2 Jasons (Parks and Cole) that Bell sat 90-92 in at least one appearance but not in all, sitting high 80s in another. His changeup was said to be inconsistent to my surprise while his CB was described by Jason Parks as a plus pitch to my shock. The FB/Change guy had turned into the FB/CB guy. WTF?
One way to understand the conflicting reports is to assume that a more limited amount of draft info was available to the public because he was a JC guy and some of that information was old. Between his Freshman and sophomore year at Wichita ST JC, he grew an inch and put on 25lbs, now 6.3/205. According to an interview he did with Jason Cole, he said that he added the changeup during his freshman year and it immediately became his best pitch. In that same interview, Bell said that he now regarded his change as a plus offering. So it seems clear that he added a bit of velo during his sophomore year as he grew but not enough to make the scouts buzz in addition to turning his changeup from an AA pitch to a plus pitch. It seems that he was a bit under the radar as that kind of stuff from a sophomore is pretty good with some projection left to be sure. Texas scouts must have caught him at a time when his velo was up and snagged him in the 14th rd. The velo reports of him in the Cape could have been accurate for the most part but not indicative. As he was pitching a "second season" on the way to about 111ip, his velo could have been inconsistent depending on the day you caught him due to fatigue. Whatever the case, TX believed that he would have at least an ave FB it seems.
How do we explain then the reports from Jason Parks that Bell's CB is now plus and his Change is now average? I think the report about his changeup is just due to the small sample size and limited innings inherent to minor league camp. The pre-draft scouting reports suggested he had an AA changeup at least and Bell himself holds that to be the case going so far as to call it plus. As for his now plus curveball, a pitch for which we had no pre-draft scuttlebutt at all, I think that must be a pitch that he improved dramatically during the off-season with the help of the coaching staff. Surely, though, he already had a good feel for it, but might not have worked on it much during his 2 years in JC.
So what does it all mean? Chad Bell is a top 20 (edit: revised from 10 to 20) prospect with 2 excellent secondary offerings and a lefty fastball (with decent movement per Parks) that will probably sit 90 with a touch of projection left there as he gets stronger though he probably doesn't have must more physical projection. Despite the fact that this year would only be his JR year college equivalent he could also move through the system fairly quickly. Kudos to the TX scouts and development staff and to Bell himself, who has seen much of his improvement occur due to his own hard work from summer ball and through spring training.
UPDATE: Jason Cole notes that while Bell sat 86-88 during his Juco yr (65ip) his velo started to tic up during summer ball (46ip) sitting 89-91 and bumping 92 according to scouts he talked to who were covering the league. While Cole notes that he has been sitting more in the 90-93 range this spring, this was during short ST (bullpen-like) outings so I would imagine that he would probably continue to sit 89-91 as a starter. If he should sit low 90s as a lh sp eventually, well, kudos to the TX scouting dept, namely Jeff Wood, who signed the kid per Cole.