Brandon Belt had a tough rookie season
When spring training ended in 2011, San Francisco Giants fans were clamoring for Brandon Belt. Due to injuries to Andres Torres and Cody Ross, both of whom could not start the season, the Giants opted to keep Belt with the big club.
In retrospect, it would have been better for the Giants to give Belt at least half of a season starting at the Triple-A level. Belt's gaudy minor league stats were largely produced in Single-A and Double-A ball.
2011 was a stressful and trying year for Belt in San Francisco. In 189 at-bats, Belt hit only .225 with nine home runs and 18 RBI. Belt struggled at the plate and that forced manager Bruce Bochy to use him off the bench and only give him spot starts.
Belt also was sent back and forth to the Giants' Triple-A affiliate in Fresno a couple of times. To top that off was the fact that Belt was also hit by a pitch in the wrist which forced him to the DL for a period. All of this resulted in inconsistent playing time, which hindered Belt's progress.
The real question is, will Brandon Belt make a more positive impact for the Giants in 2012?
Brandon Belt played decent defense in left field
The San Francisco Giants are looking to bolster their offense heading into the 2012 season. If GM Brian Sabean can acquire a big bat anywhere in the outfield without breaking the bank or gutting their pitching staff, he will do it.
The problem with big bats is they normally cost a bundle and the Giants' ownership group has instructed Sabean to keep the salary level around $130 million for 2012.
The Giants ended 2011 around $124.5 million, and with raises due for several arbitration eligible players, including Tim Lincecum, there isn't much extra money for Sabean to work with. In addition, the Giants' priority is to lock up Matt Cain and Lincecum with contract extensions, which will come with hefty price tags.
If the season were starting tomorrow, the Giants' outfield would consist of Nate Schierholtz in right field, Melky Cabrera in center and Belt in left. Whether this group has enough pop in their bats for the Giants to score runs on a consistent basis is a major uncertainty.
If Belt begins the season as the Giants' starting left fielder, he will need to produce right away. If he struggles as he did in 2011 then he will be in and out of the lineup. This hurt him last year and would be detrimental to his development again.
Belt is a good athlete and played a decent left field defensively. Barring a trade of a pitcher, most likely someone like Ramon Ramirez or Jeremy Affeldt, the Giants are unlikely to get the big bat they covet. This means Belt will start in left field to open the 2012 campaign.
Brandon Belt is congratulated by Tim Flannery after a home run
Brandon Belt hit nine home runs in 2011 in only 187 at bats. If the Giants were to give him a full season and regular laying time, you could easily see Belt hit 20 home runs in 400-500 at bats.
Belt is more of a gap-to-gap line-drive hitter, but he does have enough power to achieve the 20 home run mark in 2012.
In 2010 in the minors, Belt hit 23 home runs across the three levels he played at. Then in 2011, he hit another eight home runs in 165 at bats at the Triple-A level. His total for 2011, combining his major and minor league stats, was 17 home runs in 352 at bats.
The key will be whether Belt can produce enough to stay in the lineup and get those 450 at bats. He needs to keep his batting average above .270 or he will likely be in and out of the lineup again.
Brandon Belt had only 18 RBI in 2011
Brandon Belt had only 18 RBI in 187 at bats last year. Given the fact that he hit nine home runs, the 18 RBI is a horrendous number. What it shows is that Belt did not hit in the clutch with men in scoring position.
I recall several instances where the Giants had a runner on third base and less than two outs, but Belt was unable to get the runner in. It seemed he lost confidence early on and this led to strike outs and weak pop outs.
Simply put, Belt must do a better job driving in runs in 2012. If he stays in the lineup and gets a minimum of 450 at bats, Belt needs to have an RBI total of at least 65. Belt will most likely start the season batting seventh in the order, which will give him opportunities to hit with runners on base. He needs to produce.
Brandon Belt is an excellent defensive player at first base
Brandon Belt's natural position is first base. However, there is a crowd vying for playing time at first.
I expect Aubrey Huff to rebound and have a solid year in 2012. He is notorious for being very good every other year, plus this is a contract year for Huff, so I fully expect him to bounce back.
Brett Pill also impressed the Giants with his hitting and plate discipline in late season action. In 50 at bats, Pill had two home runs, nine RBI and hit .300. Granted, this is a small sample size, but Pill definitely outshone Belt last year.
In the minors, Pill also produced. In Fresno, Pill hit .312 with 25 home runs and 107 RBI. His SLG of .530 was also excellent. If Pill makes the roster, which is very possible, that further clouds the picture at first base.
In addition to Huff and Pill, expect to see Buster Posey at first when he is not behind the plate. The Giants want to keep his legs as fresh as possible, especially coming off his devastating injury from last season.
I can envision a scenario where Posey catches 115-120 games and is at first base for another 25 starts. When Posey plays first, manager Bruce Bochy has said Huff may also play some left field.
If Huff gets some starts in left field, that would mean Belt would sit. The only way for Belt not to allow this to happen would be for him to play so well, his bat shows Bochy that he demands to be the every day starter.
No matter who starts at first base, Belt could be moved there for late inning defense, as his glove is better than any of the other candidates.
Brandon Belt had trouble handling the inside fast ball
As a hard core Giants fan and baseball follower, I noticed early on how opposing pitchers were getting Belt out. They pounded him inside with a steady diet of fastballs in on his hands.
Belt either swung and missed these inside corner strikes or weakly fouled them off to the left. Rarely did he get the bat head through the strike zone and turn on this pitch and drive it. I am not a hitting coach, but if I saw this then you know opposing teams saw it as well.
Belt stands 6'5" and like many tall players, Belt has a long loopy swing. He likes the ball middle-away, where he can extend his arms and drive the ball to left center.
I was surprised by how difficult it was for Belt to adjust and handle the hard fastball on the inside. He could have even cheated and stepped out more to clear his arms faster, but he didn't. This would make him susceptible to slower stuff away, but the vast majority of the time Belt was victimized by the inside fastball.
In an interview on KNBR radio, the Giants' flagship station, Will Clark also voiced his feelings about Belt's long swing. According to Clark, Belt needed to shorten his swing, get started earlier and stop the long loop. Clark suggested that Belt had to take a more direct path straight to the ball.
Clark opined that if Belt fails to rid himself of the long loopy swing, it would always cause him to have a hole in his swing and struggle with that inside cheese. Belt got away with that in the minors as pitchers cannot throw it there consistently, with the velocity needed to plant the ball on Belt's hands.
In the majors, many pitchers can consistently put the ball inside with good velocity and Belt couldn't handle it. He hit tier two pitchers well, but struggled against the better pitchers in the league.
To Belt's credit, he did play winter ball in the Dominican Republic. He hit .300, with a 30-for-100 performance. These 100 at bats can be very valuable for Belt if he learned how to handle that inside fastball.
If Belt proves he can handle that pitch, he has the potential to approach a .300 batting average in 2012. However, if he can't then he will be in for another frustrating season.
I expect Belt to be somewhere in between. My projection is 380 at bats, a .272 average, with 22 home runs and 58 RBI.
Tim Lincecum will start the 2012 season opener
I do not expect the Giants to pull off a major deal to bring in a big bat, prior to the 2012 season. The moves I believe Giants' GM Brian Sabean makes will be for a backup catcher, utility infielder and some outfield depth.
The odds of the Giants landing someone like Carlos Beltran, Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder or even Michael Cuddyer or Jimmy Rollins are very remote. The money isn't being made available, at this point.
With $19 million wasted in 2012 on Barry Zito and another $13.6 million in dead money for Aaron Rowand, the Giants are handcuffed unless the ownership group is willing to bump the payroll up above the $130 million mark they have previously dictated.
In addition, GM Brian Sabean is not going to trade one of his core starters like Lincecum, Cain or Bumgarner. A middle reliever also won't bring the Giants the big bat they want.
The Giants will be counting on bounce back years from Buster Posey, Freddy Sanchez and Aubrey Huff. Melky Cabrera will be an improvement in the lead-off spot and if Brandon Belt can produce, the Giants will score enough runs to win.
The second key will be to avoid the devastating injuries that befell the team in 2011.
Here is my projected starting lineup and batting order to open the 2012 season:
Melky Cabrera CF
Freddy Sanchez 2B
Pablo Sandoval 3B
Buster Posey C
Aubrey Huff 1B
Nate Schierholtz RF
Brandon Belt LF
Brandon Crawford SS