Brandon Belt: Finally Free

Thearon W. Henderson

With a full season behind him, Giants first baseman Brandon Belt enters the new year as a breakout candidate. Can he make the jump in 2014?

It took longer than the fantasy baseball community wanted, but Giants first baseman Brandon Belt was finally freed in 2013. Despite -- what seemed like -- a half-decade of reluctance from manager Bruce Bochy and at the cost of insufferable playing time from dinosaur Aubrey Huff and .233-career hitter Brett Pill, the 25-year-old responded in kind, posting a very fine .289/.360/.481 and 139 wRC+ -- the sixth highest mark at first base.

Belt produced across the board, setting career highs in batting average, home runs (17), runs scored (76) and RBIs (67); only Hunter Pence smacked more homers and scored more runs in San Francisco, while Belt's weighted runs created (wRC+) was best on the team, better than Pence and 2012 National League MVP Buster Posey. Many of us pining for a full season of the first baseman were not surprised by the on-the-field results; all it took was a little cooperation from Bochy and the retirement of Huff to make a full season of Belt a reality.

Now that we are all but guaranteed another full season of Belt, what upside does the first baseman bring to the table? The Fake Teams Consensus First Base Rankings have Belt on the outside looking in of the top 15, but -- given Posey's inclusion in our rankings -- we can safely call Belt a top-15 option at first. He's clearly behind established veterans like Albert Pujols and Adrian Gonzalez, but there's an argument to be made that he should be included in the same discussion with Allen Craig, Anthony Rizzo and Mark Trumbo. (For the record, I prefer White Sox newcomer Jose Abreu to Belt, but the unknown factor can easily swing that debate in the opposite direction.)

Belt was a popular sleeper last year and -- by early accounts -- he's going to be a trendy pick again. While the Giants lineup doesn't feature a ton of youth on their side with Angel Pagan and Marco Scutaro setting the table, I do see more potential with the current version than the one with the 19th-best wOBA (.309) from a year ago. Most will flinch after his 14-homer campaign, but Pablo Sandoval played in 141 games last season and is reportedly already in better shape heading into camp (we'll see about that). Additionally, the free-agent acquisition of Michael Morse should at least give the Giants an extra threat of power after the team finished 29th with 107 home runs a year ago -- only the Marlins (95 home runs) were worse.

Belt will fit nicely into the middle of San Francisco's lineup, with Posey, Pence and Sandoval near-by. All three have career averages north of. 285, so opposing pitchers won't have much wiggle room, leaving plenty of run scoring opportunities for Belt, who spent most of last season batting sixth. Almost every projected lineup I can find has Belt hitting third in front of Posey, which -- even if you scoff at the merits of lineup protection -- should benefit him going forward.

The most pressing question for would-be Belt owners is, "Can the Baby Giraffe increase his home-run output?" Really, what we all want to know is, can he hit 20? Belt will enter the season at age 25, leaving substantial room to increase his power production. Last season we saw huge strides in ISO (.193, up from .146) and slugging percentage (.481, up from .421). Looking closer, we can see that Belt morphed into a different hitter in the second half, carrying a .326 BA in 60 games (compared to a .260 BA in 80 first-half games). While he cut down the strikeouts (23.5 percent strikeout rate in the first half, 19.8 in the second), Belt also stopped hitting as many fly balls. His percentage of fly balls went from 43.9 percent to 38.9, and his line drive rate soared from 21.5 percent to 27.7. That's important because San Francisco's home ballpark is a notorious fly ball killer, especially for left-handed bats like Belt's -- line drives are the preferred alternative.

With a batting average increase of 66 points, his second-half approach proved much more effective, and, more importantly, it didn't affect his home-run output (he had identical HR/FB rates of 10.6 percent). The problem then becomes more of a San Francisco thing. Belt hit six of 17 home runs at home in 2013, and only 13 of 33 career homers have come at home. According to FanGraphs Park Factors, AT&T Park was the worst ballpark for left-handed power in 2013. San Diego was worse in 2012, but the Padres moved in their fences and the difference was dramatic.

In the minors, Belt's best year in terms of home runs came in 2010, when he combined to hit 20 across three levels (ending in Double-A). He hit 17 between Triple-A and San Francisco the following season and dropped to seven in 2012 (in 472 plate appearances). Despite Belt's second-half improvements, we're likely looking at a player who will be on the cusp of 20 home runs again and again. That doesn't mean he is unusable -- Craig, for example, had a very productive year in St. Louis with only 13 home runs. Belt's batting average will never reach the .300-level, but if I squint hard enough, I can see a year with similar -- yet slightly less -- run production.

Overall, I like Brandon Belt just fine as an NL-only option, but I would not feel comfortable using him as my primary first baseman in standard formats. There is not one elite tool I can point to and those of you paying for a breakout are doing so based on hope, not likelihood. Is a true breakout coming? I don't think so -- Belt remains a fringe fantasy first baseman for me, albeit one with a safe floor.

Rotobanter projection ($7.53): .282 BA, 74 R, 17 HR, 68 RBI, 6 SB

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