It seems like just yesterday that Brandon Belt was a top-25 prospect, forced to move off of his best position in order to find playing time behind the declining Aubrey Huff. We're well beyond the point of that mattering in any context, and there are no external impediments to Belt's playing time - but it was frustratingly fascinating in its time, and I can't help but feel that it will be a bit more than a footnote in his career.
Since becoming the Giants' full-time first baseman, Belt has posted numbers that may best be described as solid, yet unspectacular. He boasts a .277/.352/.461 slash line, averaging 75 R, 18 HR, 72 RBI, and 10 SB per 162 games - fine numbers, to be sure, but decidedly middling for a position as deep and powerful as first base. Belt's overall numbers look a bit better if you exempt his injury-riddled 2014, but not significantly so (and his ISO actually drops a bit). The 2015 season is representative of his fantasy stock to date, as Belt ranked anywhere between 10th and 18th in the various fantasy formats out there.
While that all sounds rather uninspiring, there's a kicker: Belt still has at least a bit of untapped potential.
When Belt was making the rounds in various top-100 lists way back in 2011, prospectors were drooling over his plus-plus hit tool and potential to hit in the middle of a lineup. It is generally quite difficult for a first baseman to rank among the best prospects in baseball, and Belt did just that, peaking as a consensus top-20-ish prospect heading into the 2011 season. Why does this matter?
Simply put, Belt is still a few months shy of his 28th birthday, and only had a year and a half of minor league seasoning (and much of that time was spent riding the bus between the minors and the Majors). It isn't uncommon for power to peak in a player's late 20s, and Belt has shown signs that he may be doing just that. In 2015, he posted career bests in LD% and hard-hit percentage, leading the league in the former and ranking 9th in the latter. While neither necessarily portends a jump in over the fence power on their own, Belt also posted a career-low in groundball percentage - and hitting the ball harder and keeping it in the air does tend to lead to more home runs. And, in more obvious terms, he also hit a career-high 18 HR despite missing 25 games.
With a bit of luck, Belt should also perform significantly better in runs and RBI this season, as the Giants lineup should be better. Joe Panik and Hunter Pence only played a combined 152 games last season, Angel Pagan had the worst season of his career, and Nori Aoki missed 69 games (and has been replaced by Denard Span). The top of the order stands to improve in 2016, and Belt, who spends the majority of his time batting 3rd, 4th, or 5th, should reap the rewards.
Despite the relative brevity of his career, Belt feels like a known commodity as a .270 to .280 hitter with middle of the pack numbers across the board for his position. I strongly believe, however, that he is poised to take a step forward this season, and I would not be shocked if he posted career-bests in batting average, home runs, and RBI.