For more than a decade, left field at AT&T Park belonged to Barry Bonds. There was no competition; no platoon. Those times are long gone now.
The competition in left field continues even with less than two weeks before the start of the season. Pat Burrell, Mark DeRosa and Aaron Rowand continue to duke it out for the starting job.
DeRosa started just 26 games last season for the Giants before a wrist injury ended his season in June. His versatility as both an infielder and outfielder, and the fact that the Giants have already filled his best positions, makes him better suited for a utility role.
At 33-years-old, Rowand's defense has taken a step back. After hitting just .230 last season, Rowand was usurped by Andres Torres as the Giants' center fielder. Much like DeRosa, the best Rowand can do now is give one of the team's starters a night off.
Under contract through the 2012 season, the Giants would love to find a taker for Rowand.
In 96 games with the Giants last season, Burrell came alive, posting a .266/.364/.509 slash line, all well above his seasonal averages.
He has the most offensive upside of any of the candidates for left field, which will probably win him the Opening Day nod, but he's not going to give the Giants much in terms of batting average or defense.
After winning the World Series last season, the Giants return for 2011 with almost the exact same team, leaving most fans to dream of a repeat. And with one of the best starting rotations in baseball—Giants fans will tell you it's THE best—those dreams are certainly justified.
But this is still a team that made no significant improvements from last season and ranked in the middle of the National League in terms of offense last season. Since pitching is their strongest suit, cramming as much offensive potential into the lineup should be the one and only goal.
Since left field is the only open position battle right now, it's also the only spot to improve.
Will Burrell, DeRosa or Rowand give them enough offense to improve on last year's numbers? Probably not. They're all solid players, but each is a hair's breath away from a utility role. In fact, DeRosa and Rowand are pretty much already there.
So how can the Giants improve?
It starts by getting top prospect Brandon Belt into the lineup for Opening Day. And that happens by moving Aubrey Huff to left field.
It's not overly complicated, and it doesn't require a lot of analysis. Belt can flat out rake, and Huff was their best offensive player last season—they both need to be in the lineup.
Last season, in three minor league stops, Belt, 22, combined for a .352/.455/.620 slash line with 23 home runs and 112 RBI. The majority of his starts came at first base, where he had a .992 fielding percentage and nine errors.
Through 21 games this spring, Belt is hitting .269 with two home runs and 10 RBI.
Huff led the Giants in almost every offensive category, including all triple crown categories (.290/26/85), on-base percentage (.385) and slugging (.506). His left-handed swing did not prove to be a problem for AT&T Park, as previously thought, as he hit 12 of his home runs there.
His .303 BABIP makes him less of a candidate for a step back this season, so the Giants can expect solid production once again.
The majority of Huff's starts came at first base, but he also made 57 starts in the outfield—33 in right and 24 in left.
He played a slightly better left field, posting a 2.5 UZR there, compared to -1.3 in right. It's a small sample size, and at 34-years-old, Huff hasn't played a majority of the season in the outfield since 2005 with Tampa Bay.
But moving Huff to left field and placing Belt at first base is a calculated risk for the Giants, and the best way to add some offense.
Should Huff start in left field to make room for Belt?
At the very least, the Giants can switch Belt and Huff back and forth between first base and left field this season. Belt made a total of 14 starts in the outfield in the minors last year, 11 in right and three in left.
It's not a lot, but Belt is a young kid. Aching knees and leg issues shouldn't be much of a concern.
This is a move that is going to happen, whether it's now or during the season. Every left field candidate the Giants have right now comes with question marks, whether it's defensively or offensively. If Burrell is going to be the Opening Day left fielder, it's because of his offense.
But does a lineup with Burrell and Huff produce better than a lineup with Belt and Huff? Maybe. At least it doesn't have as much upside.
And since Giants fans are going to see Belt this season, why tease them? If Burrell doesn't produce early on, it won't be long before the calls for Belt start up nice and loud in the Bay Area.
Give the fans what they want and give the lineup what it needs.