In 2010, fans of the San Francisco Giants got to witness one of the franchise's top prospects rise to prominence as one of the most exciting players in the game. That year, Buster Posey lived up to his billing as the Giants' best hitting prospect in seemingly a millennium by leading the team to their first World Championship in the San Fran era and winning National League Rookie of the Year honors. For a fanbase that had had to suffer through two decades of failure in its young hitting talent, Posey was a refreshing change. Perhaps he was a beacon of light, a signal of the beginning of a new era of competent evaluation of offensive talent.
Or not. As satisfying as it was to watch Posey develop into a star-caliber major leaguer, it was equally galling to watch the Giants completely mismanage their next bright young hitting talent, Brandon Belt. Belt's presence in the Opening Day lineup last season brought hope to prospect mavens and fantasy players everywhere, but his season quickly degenerated into such an up-and-down affair that his walk up song should have been everyone's favorite pre-Gilmour Pink Floyd tune. Belt's final 2011 line doesn't look too impressive, but he was jerked around so much, and his role was so ill-defined, that it's really hard to tell what we have here just yet.
So is the Baby Giraffe still a star in the making, or is he the next J.R. Phillips? Are we looking at a player who hiccuped in 2011, or one who was just a one-year minor league flash in the pan? After the jump, we'll take a look at whether Belt is worth a pick on draft day, or a player to let someone else worry about.
Belt's ascent to prospectdom is actually a bit abnormal. After being drafted twice as a pitcher (!) by both the Red Sox and Braves, Belt finally landed in the pros for good after being selected in the fifth round in 2009 by the Giants. Belt then proceeded to send jaws dropping all around the baseball world by putting up video game numbers in the minor leagues in 2010. As a 22-year-old, Belt put up an unholy .383/.492/.628 line at High-A, and a promotion to AA ended with almost identical results. After an impressive late-season audition at AAA that year, the Giants suddenly had yet another blue-chip, can't-miss hitting prospect on their hands. Two in a row!
A wrench was thrown into the gears of Belt's quick major league aspirations, however, when the Giants gave Aubrey Huff a two-year, post-championship hangover contract that they regretted in about a month. Fortune shined on him, however, as Cody Ross got hurt in spring training and the door was opened for Belt to make his debut. Belt found himself in the Opening Day lineup at first base (Huff shifted to right field...it wasn't pretty) and even got a hit in his first major league at bat, legging out a slow chopper against Clayton Kershaw. He then proceeded to tear the league apart and never look back, just like in the minors.
Actually, not even close. Belt launched a home run in his second game, but then pretty much stunk as a regular for the next few weeks. The Giants, never a franchise in tune with small sample size vagaries in regards to young players, sent Belt down in a heartbeat once Ross returned to the active roster. Belt then did what he had always done in the minors... he hit the living crap out of the ball. It was almost as if 60 major league plate appearances might not have been an accurate gauge of his abilities.
Belt returned to the majors in late May amidst frequent demands from the fans that be made the regular first baseman. Unfortunately, he immediately broke his wrist and had to go on the DL. He returned six weeks later, only to sit and rot on the bench for a couple of weeks before being sent to AAA, again, when the Giants acquired Carlos Beltran. When Beltran immediately hurt himself, Belt was back up for good, only this time the Giants converted him into their regular left fielder and left him alone. Quite a turbulent flight for a green rookie trying to establish himself in The Show.
Belt's final .228/.306/.412 line doesn't jump out at you, but it was good for a 101 OPS+, so with all of the craziness surrounding his year and the inconsistency, he was actually above league average as a hitter. He looked undeniably miserable in April and particularly in late-August, when he was an undisciplined train wreck who looked late on every fastball. He teased fans with flashes of his incredible potential, including a two-homer showing in Florida where he bombed one to the opposite field, over the Teal Monster. It never all came together, however, and despite a strong power showing in September, he still had trouble making contact and didn't draw walks or show the patience that he had in the minors.
A lot of people are willing to give him a mulligan. The wrist injury plus the Giants' ridiculous mishandling of him during mid-summer sent his season off the tracks and would probably screw up anybody. The question is: Can 2012 be the breakout year that we envisioned from him last season?
Verdict: Boom...if the Giants will let him. No one knows what Belt's role will be when the 2012 season dawns. The Giants brought in Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan to shore up the outfield, and they seem insistent on playing Nate Schierholtz regularly in right. Aubrey Huff is still around for another year at first base. While the wisest option would probably be to cut Huff and play Belt (that would have been the wise option last year, actually), the Giants are already giving $12 million to Aaron Rowand to play for the Marlins and will be paying Barry Zito $19 million and praying he doesn't suck out loud. The team will probably be loathe to swallow more money, even if it means another sub-replacement level season from Huff.
So Belt might be screwed by circumstance, but let's pretend he does get to play regularly. I predict big things, mostly because his power is completely legit, and he showed the ability to hit for average and draw walks in the minor leagues. That typically doesn't just disappear upon reaching the majors, especially for a player like Belt, who played like a man among boys in his first professional season. Screw it...I'll predict something like .280-25-80 given a full season's worth of plate appearances.
Belt's first major league home run was a bolt to dead center field at Dodger Stadium, so any doubters as to his power potential should have been quieted right there. He's a 25-30 homer threat, although some of that might be squashed by playing at AT&T Park, a notoriously difficult home run park for lefties. His fantasy appeal is elevated because he's outfield-eligible as well, although long term I don't know how well he profiles as a starting outfielder. He didn't look great out there, and his one-season defensive numbers were ugly.
Belt is a guy to monitor right down to the end of spring training. If he leaves Arizona with a starting job, jump on him, especially in NL-only leagues. His minor league numbers are so good, I can't believe that his true talent is simply the strikeout-prone mediocrity we saw last year. With 500-odd plate appearances, bank on 20 homers. If he starts in season in AAA, he's a good keeper league grab with the potential to make an impact later in the season a la Posey in 2010.