Giants' Brandon Belt Leads 5 National League Players Who Need a Good Week

Ian Casselberry@iancassMLB Lead WriterJuly 23, 2012

Giants' Brandon Belt Leads 5 National League Players Who Need a Good Week

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    With one full week remaining in July, time has run out for several struggling players to right themselves. The end of July also brings baseball's non-waiver trade deadline, meaning that some of these slumping players will be replaced by outside help. 

    Upgrading positions that are under-performing is especially important for teams that are involved in playoff races. The Giants are in first place and trying to hold off the Dodgers for the NL West lead. The Braves are within reach of first place in the NL East. And the Cardinals and Diamondbacks are still alive in their respective division title and wild-card races. 

    It's possible that a couple of the players we'll mention here will have been replaced in the week to come, whether by demotion to the minors or a spot on the bench. Even with a good performance, it might be too late to change the perception that's developed over nearly four months. But while these players still have an opportunity to make a good impression, some immediate improvement would really help them.

    Here are five National League players who need to have a good week. 

Jair Jurrjens, Atlanta Braves

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    Mike Minor arguably could have been listed here as well, with an important start against the Miami Marlins on Monday night. But he's pitched well in his past two starts (albeit versus the Cubs and Giants), allowing three earned runs with 13 strikeouts in 12.1 innings.

    So Jair Jurrjens gets the pressure of needing to pitch well—and pitch well now—all to himself. With the Braves eying a three-game sweep of the NL East-leading Washington Nationals, Jurrjens couldn't even make it through three innings. He was lit up for six runs and nine hits, two of them home runs.

    That gives Jurrjens 14 runs and 17 hits allowed in his past two starts, covering less than six innings of work. Jurrjens has never been a big strikeout pitcher, but one punchout in two starts is even low for him.

    Since being recalled from Triple-A Gwinnett after an early-season demotion, Jurrjens has a 3-2 record and 5.81 ERA in six starts. For the season, he's 3-4 with a 7.04 ERA in 10 appearances. 

    Jurrjens' next scheduled start is Saturday against the Phillies. That will be three days before the July 31 trade deadline. Will Jurrjens make that start on Saturday? And if so, will it be the last one he makes this season for the Braves? 

Jon Jay, St. Louis Cardinals

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    The Cardinals center fielder may already have started the turnaround he needed in Sunday's 7-0 win over the Cubs. Jon Jay went 4-for-4 with a double and two RBI, breaking out of a post-All-Star break slump in which he batted 3-for-24 (.125) over eight games. 

    As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Derrick Goold explained, Jay has been working through mechanical and timing issues in his swing since returning from the disabled list. Last week, he stopped looking at video of his swing and the opposing pitcher he was set to face. Instead, he began hitting off a tee, just as he does when beginning offseason training.

    Goold also reports that the Cards are looking around for right-handed hitting center fielders, though that's not necessarily an indictment of Jay. Jay hits left-handed pitching well, compiling a .327/.389/.408 in 56 plate appearances. So getting another center fielder might be a depth move. 

    Yet if Jay was hitting well right now, would trading for another center fielder or moving Skip Schumacher to that position even be up for discussion? 

    Jay has seven more games before the trade deadline to reassure the Cardinals that he's capable of manning center field by himself during the team's playoff drive.

Francisco Cordero, Houston Astros

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    When Francisco Cordero came over to the Houston Astros as part of a 10-player trade with the Toronto Blue Jays, questions over what role he'd play quickly arose. The Astros took care of that quickly, however, by trading incumbent closer Brett Myers to the Chicago White Sox.

    So Cordero is now the team's closer. But for how long? 

    Cordero had been awful with the Blue Jays, allowing 24 runs and 48 hits in 34.1 innings. That's a steep drop from the reliever who compiled a 2.45 ERA and saved 37 games last season for the Cincinnati Reds. But maybe Cordero just isn't suited for pitching in the American League, especially against AL East competition.

    A return to the National League and NL Central might help restore Cordero to his former level of performance. But how many save opportunities is he really going to get with the lowly Astros?

    Does general manager Jeff Luhnow really think his team needs a veteran anchor in the ninth inning. Or is he hoping Cordero shows enough to be flipped for more prospects before the trade deadline? Luhnow already got rid of one 37-year-old reliever earlier this season in Livan Hernandez. What are the chances he keeps Cordero around?

    Of course, Cordero will have to pitch better to draw interest from other teams. His past three innings have been scoreless, so that could be an encouraging sign. But showing he can pitch some shutdown relief against the Reds and Pirates this week would raise more eyebrows. 

Ryan Wheeler, Arizona Diamondbacks

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    The Arizona Diamondbacks have been looking for a third baseman for most of the season, as Ryan Roberts has shown that last year's 19-homer breakout was probably a fluke. The D-Backs have been involved in trade rumors for players like Kevin Youkilis and Chase Headley, clearly preferring a veteran presence at the position.

    However, that was a somewhat curious direction for the D-Backs since they had a third-base prospect mashing the ball in Triple-A. In 399 plate appearances in Reno this season, Ryan Wheeler batted .351/.388/.572 with 19 home runs and 90 RBI. 

    Either because general manager Kevin Towers couldn't make a deal for a third baseman or because the D-Backs realized it was silly not to give Wheeler a chance, Arizona called up the 24-year-old on Friday. Manager Kirk Gibson doesn't want to throw Wheeler into the deep end just yet, rotating him with Roberts. Roberts got the start on Saturday against Astros left-hander Dallas Keuchel. 

    Wheeler's overall numbers don't look that impressive so far with two hits in nine plate appearances. But he did get a hit in each of the games he started. Facing the Rockies and Mets this week could help him improve those numbers and show that he should be the D-Backs' man at third base for the rest of the season. 

    It's understandable that Gibson wants to take Wheeler along slowly. But Arizona also needs to see what they have in their young third baseman.

Brandon Belt, San Francisco Giants

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    By the time you read this or before the San Francisco Giants take the field against the San Diego Padres Monday night, manager Bruce Bochy and general manager Brian Sabean may already have made the decision to send Brandon Belt back down to the minors.

    After a promising June during which he compiled an .963 OPS with four home runs and 15 RBI, Belt has cratered in July. In 52 plate appearances this month, the Giants' first baseman has batted .133/.231/.156 with two RBI. 

    Belt went 0-for-5 in each of his last two games over the weekend. That capped off a 1-for-20 road trip, which had beat reporters asking Bochy after Sunday's game whether the Giants would make a move with Belt. Just as he was asked that question, Bochy's phone beeped and he said it was a text from Sabean. Uh-oh.

    Bochy has often been criticized for not being patient enough with Belt, preferring to go with veterans like Aubrey Huff, who show little to no upside. Belt has shown he can handle Triple-A pitching. He has nothing left to prove at that level. But he's giving the Giants little choice but to consider a replacement at first base, perhaps immediately. 

    As the Mercury News' Alex Pavlovic writes, the Giants' most realistic option is to send Belt down and call up Brett Pill from Triple-A Fresno. Pill hasn't been great, however, compiling a .790 OPS. So the Giants might consider other options like moving Pablo Sandoval or even Buster Posey over to first base. 

    Or maybe Belt has three more games to show something, before the Giants' off-day on Thursday. That's putting a lot of pressure on him, but he's already under plenty of pressure to break out of his slump and avoid a demotion. It might already be too late for him to change the Giants' minds.

     

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