It’s only 90 feet from home plate to first base, but the race to become the San Francisco Giants’ starting first baseman is a competitive and lengthy one.
As of now, there are three candidates vying for the starting spot on Opening Day—Aubrey Huff, Brandon Belt and Brett Pill. The fact that so many players are even being considered is somewhat of an indication that the position could turn into a carousel during the season—if the starter finds himself struggling, it’d be easy to find someone to quickly replace him in the lineup.
So how do the Giants approach this competition during spring training?
Huff is the incumbent, the 12-year pro whose steady play and heady presence helped immensely in the team’s magical 2010 World Series run. However, the 35-year-old was left with a championship hangover last season, as he sputtered to a .246 batting average, with 12 home runs and a dismal .676 OPS. As a result, San Francisco made it clear that they were auditioning first-baseman-of-the-future candidates.
Last year, Belt saw action in 29 games at first base, and Pill played in 14 games. While Pill performed impressively manning first base (.306 batting average, .885 OPS), Belt struggled a tad (.227 batting average, .800 OPS).
Would it be safe to presume that Pill is the leading candidate to take over the first base position?
All signs indicate that it’s still too early to tell. Belt has seen the most innings at first base this spring (41), and so far, he has been dominating the Cactus League, sporting a .389 batting average, with seven extra-base hits.
Pill has been holding his own, too. He has been featured in 14 spring games, second-most on the team, and is batting .289 with six extra-base hits.
Which direction should the Giants be leaning toward?
Let’s be honest—Huff will be the Opening Day first baseman, if only based on his experience. Belt and Pill are clearly contending for the backup spot on the roster.
Unfortunately for Belt, he is a left-handed hitter, like Huff. The Giants are a bit thinner on the right side of the plate, at least in terms of power. Buster Posey is a natural right-hander, and Pablo Sandoval is a switch hitter. There's not much else for San Francisco with respects to right-handed hitting, which doesn’t bode well for the more approachable left field fence at AT&T Park.
Thus, Pill should be the leading candidate to serve as the backup first baseman, with Belt pining for playing time in the outfield. There simply isn’t enough of first base to go around, especially when factoring in the possibility of Posey seeing time at first in an effort to relieve him of playing catcher as he recovers from his season-ending injury a year ago.
Belt, unfortunately, is the odd man out in this pileup at first base. He may land himself a spot on the Opening Day roster, but only in the event that second baseman Freddy Sanchez lands on the disabled list as he continues to recover from shoulder surgery.
The likelihood that Belt secures an Opening Day spot is high, as long as he continues to rake during spring training. The probability that he’ll land in Triple-A Fresno once Sanchez is healthy enough to play is also very high. With a crowded race to first base, Belt simply might get squeezed out of significant playing time in the majors.
Meanwhile, Pill is looking to be the medicine the Giants need as a right-handed power hitter, likely to replace Huff if or when he starts to slump. In fact, if Huff labors through a slow first half of the season, it’s possible that Pill could be promoted as the starter, and Huff will see time on the bench. Moreover, it’s possible Huff gets dealt by the trading deadline to make room for the progressing Pill and Belt.
All these questions will be figured out as the season approaches and carries on. For now, this will prove to be an interesting battle at first base this spring, one that affects the roster spots and playing time of three different players.
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