Friday, November 19, 2010

Who’s on First? Hopefully, Brandon Belt

Let’s first off hope that Brandon Belt is not the next Brandon Wood. Let’s also hope, however reluctantly and painfully, it’s also not Aubrey Huff on first. *Dodges thrown sharp objects*
The 2010 Giants season was the single greatest sporting experience of my life. I grew a beard, and for each game wore the same gray t-shirt, Giants pullover and a pair of Washington State University sweats – Thank you for those, my lovely fiancé Caley! That was once I’d discovered they were OBVIOUSLY the source of all the Brooks Conrad errors, Cody Ross home runs, one run wins, and of Javier Lopez’s lefty destroying magic. I lost my sanity several dozen times and scared the daylights out of my 11 LB dog in the process. It was wonderful. And without Aubrey Huff, the 2010 Giants almost certainly wouldn’t have won the division, eliminated the Braves, won the pennant and taken home the first World Series championship in San Francisco history. With that being said, let’s please set aside the nostalgia for the time being, and determine what is the best course for the now restored to glory franchise.
Allow me to state some facts, using the sandwich technique. Aubrey Huff is a fantastic baseball player, who has had his two best statistical years in two of the past three seasons. He is a wonderful clubhouse presence to boot. So was Ken Griffey Jr. in 2009 and 2010. Aubrey Huff will be 34 years in old 32 days. Players, on average, peak at ages 27 to 32. Despite his lauded defense in 2010 and +9.7 UZR at first base, his career first base UZR is -3.0, his career outfield UZR -29.0. Experts agree it takes two to three seasons to get a representative and therefore ultimately accurate sample of fielding to derive a players true defensive ability.
In the first half, Aubrey Huff hit 17 home runs, walked 43 times and struck out 40 times, hit .295, and posted an on-base percentage (OBP), slugging percentage (SLG), and on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) of .384/.544/.929. He did this with a .287 batting average on balls in play (BABiP). In the second half, he hit 9 home runs, walked 40 times and struck out 51, hit .284 and had a respectable OBP/SLG/OPS – This is his “slash” line – of .385/.462/.847. He did this with a somewhat inflated BABiP of .317, when his career mark is .293.
Aubrey Huff will likely be seeking a two to three year offer of around $8 to $10 million annually. Given his brilliant 2010 season, he 1) deserves it and 2) will likely get it. Moreover, this is not LIKELY, but rather IS, the final time in his career he will have a chance to cash in on a decent contract. I like Huff quite a lot; I will always have a special place in my heart for his 2010 production, leadership, and unforgettable red rally thong, all of which propelled the Giants to achieve something that I never dreamed of, certainly not so soon. I’m on par with the biggest and most loyal Giants fan you’re likely to ever run into, and now that I’ve tasted victory I want more. Would another championship feel THIS good? I can’t say; I’ll posit probably not. However, I want to find out.
More facts: The Giants have a first baseman in their minor league system that they drafted in the fifth round of the 2009 draft. His name is Brandon Belt. He is 6’5” and around 200 pounds. He was a high profile pitcher for most of his college career, but the Giants signed him as a hitter, saying: “…he’s just learning to hit…” and  “…all the upside is in front of this guy (Doug Mapson to Baseball Beginnings, 8/31/2009).” He would also say that the Giants have “…instructors we pay a lot of money in order to help these young hitters…” Instruct him, they did.
Belt confirmed to Project Prospect on Nov 7, 2010, that “…the [Giants] organization, they opened me up, they raised my hands, and they got me up out of the crouch just a little bit just so I could stay stacked in my upper body. And so far it’s worked out pretty well for me.” I’d say so. He also confirmed the changes helped him improve his bat speed and “…getting’ [his] hips through the ball.” It’s also clearly helped him shorten his swing and cover up the hole on the inside of his swing. He will still have a hole, every hitter does – Yes, even Pujols – but the idea is to shrink the hole and make it such that most if not all pitchers cannot consistently make pitches to that hole.
With his freshly redesigned swing, Belt went ballistic. He had 333 plate appearances in A-Advanced San Jose and hit 10 home runs, stole 18 bases – Proving his athleticism and baseball acumen – hit .383 and had a slash-line of .455/.620/1.121 for an impossible weighted on-base average (wOBA) of .489. He then graduated to AA Richmond, a league in which hitters routinely struggle, including Giants prospects, and in 201 plate appearances hit 9 home runs, hit .337, and had a slash line of .413/.623/1.036 for a spectacular .447 wOBA. Finally, he moved on to AAA Fresno for just 61 plate appearances. He managed 4 home runs but only hit .229 – He was battered with an unlucky .241 BABiP – in a very small sample. Luckily, he walked 13 times and had a triple slash line of .393/.563/.956 for a still quite great wOBA of .419. His final tally in his first professional season, while playing excellent defense and discovering a new swing: 23 home runs, 10 triples, 43 doubles, 22 stolen bases, 93 walks to just 99 strikeouts, a .352 average and a slash line of .455/.620/1.075. Not bad in a years work. But wait…
The Giants sent Belt to the Arizona Fall League (AFL) for further seasoning – Also, likely to see if he might be ready for opening day. The league is typically composed of some of the very best prospects in baseball, and this year is no exception, including Dustin Ackley and Bryce Harper. Belt jumped right in and through the end of the regular season and 84 at bats has hit .372 with 1 home run, 8 doubles, and 5 triples for a slash line of .427/.616/1.043, slashing line drives through the warm air in the fall desert. He will be playing in the AFL championship game this coming Saturday.
The consensus among scouts is that his season was no fluke at all:
A scout told Jayson Stark, on Belt: “You can have [Bryce] Harper. Give me that kid. He’s got a chance to be Larry Walker. Athletic. Powerful, Good defender. And he hits the ball line-to-line with thunder.”
Jason Grey is a scout for ESPN, and said this about Belt: “Having… [seen Belt] for the first couple of weeks of the AFL. There’s no doubt in my mind Belt is legit and a potential middle–of-the-order threat in a big league lineup capable of hitting for average and power.” He went on to say “I’ve liked Belt’s Approach, the quality of his at-bats, his ability to generate power without over swinging and his ability to go to the opposite field with some juice. He’s played good defense at first base and has showed good athleticism, enough that I’ve changed my mind to think he might not look out of place should the Giants choose to play him in left field, where he dabbled a little bit in the minors this year.”
Keith Law – and lead analyst for Scouts Inc. – has repeatedly said: “Belt is a potential star.”
All of the praise for Belt has him currently pegged as the number two first base prospect in the minors, behind only Eric Hosmer*.
*Hosmer comes from the farm system of the Kansas City Royals, a franchise that is the American League’s version of the Pirates, but also a franchise that’s farm system is busting at the seams with tremendous prospects. Hosmer was taken third overall in 2008, two ahead of Posey. Kevin Goldstein – Scout and Player Development expert for Baseball Prospectus – said: “The more I write up these Royals prospects, the harder a time I have figuring out a way they can screw this up.” In 2010 as a 20 year old in A Advanced and AA – He was young in BOTH leagues – he hit 20 home runs, 43 doubles, 9 triples, walked 59 times to just 66 strikeouts, hit .338 and put up a triple slash line of .406/.571/.977. It may be needless to say, but given his age, where he was drafted and the numbers he’s put up, it’s not an insult Belt is penciled in behind him.
My gut tells me that the Giants ought to install Belt at first base, his natural position, and use the money they saved on not signing Huff to a multi-year deal on a solid, two-way corner outfielder. I’ve looked at the Giants’ roster, and by resigning Huff and Uribe they won’t be getting any younger. Also, having looked at the roster, it’s easy to draw the conclusion that the Giants’ payroll is going to near or exceed $100 million with contract commitments and arbitration raises – Which was their approximate payroll in 2010 – before they sign a single free agent and fill their corner outfield, first base and shortstop vacancies.
Given their need for a shortstop – There’s nothing ready on the farm – as well as the scarcity of a decent shortstop option in this years crop of free agents, I think Uribe is the obvious of the two to resign. Otherwise, the Giants should engineer a trade for a shortstop, which actually might be their best option. If they take this route, they can spend some what little money they have on a left fielder and install Belt at first for league minimum. This is the most cost-effective way for the Giants to maximize their production within the constraints of their payroll, and I just don’t see any scenario in which signing Huff to a multi-year deal helps them in the long run. Again, as painful as that is to say and for any Giants fan to hear (or read).

Stats provided by Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference


  1. Let me start off with I am a huge Brandon Belt fan and think that he has a bright future.

    Here is the way that I see it.

    1) You can never have too much depth. So if Huff comes back and Belt is ready both have enough flexibility to play a corner outfield spot and serve as an insurance policy should one not play well.

    2) You could also have the scenario where Belt isn't ready to start right away or the Giants want to see him a little more against more advanced players and he comes up in May or June and that would give the Giants a trading chip at the deadline ala Bengie last season.

    3) I am not too worried about Huff taking a step backward. His one bad season has been sandwiched around several good ones and looks like a blip. He is getting older which means a long deal wouldn't be a good idea but 2 years shouldn't kill the team financially.

    4) There is the chance that Belt has growing pains and isn't going to light the world on fire right away. Yes he is a good prospect but sometimes good prospects don't pan out right away even when they have major hype. It would be nice to have a back up plan especially considering that the Giants expect to contend again next season.

    So summing it all up I think that bringing back Huff is still a good idea and the best way to proceed. Best case we have 2 good first basemen that give depth and flexibility and worse case we have a back up plan should one not pan out as expected.

  2. All excellent points, thanks Scott. 2 years is a max for me, and doable in my opinion (if Huff bites). However, that might leave them with no money for SS, LF/RF. So whats the lesser of two evils? Also agreed that hot prospect does not equal guaranteed star, average regular, or bench player, especially not right away.

  3. Sabean has indicated that the Giants are already at $100M for 2011 without signing any free agents. This includes the 8 players under multiyear contracts with their raises, the 8 arbitration eligible players with their expected raises, and the pre arbitration eligible players.

    Sabean has also indicated that he would like to retain all of the arbitration eligible players and is seeking to re-sign both Juan Uribe and Aubrey Huff. This tells me the Giants plan to increase the salary budget for 2011 significantly above the just under $100M level it was at in 2010.

    If the Giants succeed in re-signing both Huff and Uribe it will likely cost them around $15M in 2011 salaries plus another year or two at the same combined dollars. In addition the Giants have a third opening on their 40 man roster which I think is likely targeted for backup SS (but possibly a relatively cheap LFer on a one year deal).

    This all tells me that the Giants are likely to be spending something approaching $120M on salaries in 2011.

  4. With this salary budget in mind I think the Giants best course of action is to re-sign both Huff and Uribe at these costs and Renteria at about $3M for 1 year to be the backup SS.

    This allows the Giants to promote Belt when they think he is ready and move Huff to LF when they do so. In the mean time LF playing time can be shared by some combination of Rowand, DeRosa, Renteria, Schierholtz, Ishikawa, and Fontenot. Sandoval could play 1B moving Huff to LF when Renteria or Fontenot play and Huff could also move to LF when Ishikawa plays.

  5. Playing an infielder with a bad defensive track record, despite the praise in '10, in the outfield every day during his age 35 season is not a good idea, and I'm talking Huff here. I think it's foolish to essentially bring back the WS team with aging players, and that needed 162 games to vanquish the Padres. Not trying to improve (unwillingness to change) is exactly the sort of thing that will instill complacency in the players and result in mediocrity over the long haul. If this is Sabean's plan, well, we'll all know why he's received less than stellar reviews often.

  6. The team would improve. A full year of Posey and no Molina. A full year of Bumgarner and no Wellemeyer. A full year Ross, Sanchez, and Torres and less of much lessor options.

    I have zero fears of having Huff play the outfield in 2011 or even 2012.

  7. There will be some changes. Also, its not exactly as if they are keeping this team stagnant. Sabean never does, and many of these players have not been here long at all. Posey 108 games, Ross less than 2 months, Huff 1 year, Uribe 2 years, Pablo is all of 24 years old, Torres although older, plays like a young exhuberant player, New bench player, and former starter Rowand, is at least a gamer even if he is declining.

  8. Resigning Uribe and Huff is doing nothing to improve. How anyone can argue that point is perplexing.

  9. The point is not that resigning Uribe and Huff is doing nothing to improve, but that the other factors of the team will improve the team in spite of resigning Uribe and Huff being sideways moves.

    Still, other teams have failed to make even sideways moves and end up regressing by going with another option that moves then downward rather than upward.

    You can't improve with every move you make. Some moves will necessarily be sideways moves or even slightly down because the devil you know is better than the one that you don't. Billy Beane has not learned that yet with closers, for example.

    So getting Uribe and Huff would be doing nothing to improve, but that would have been OK because there are a lot of areas where the Giants could go up, starting with half the team is so young that they should be improving each year, and particularly because Belt and Sandoval should give the Giants a great middle of the lineup relatively soon.

    Nice post, BTW, really enjoyed it.

  10. Thanks for the comment ogc. I guess a lot depends on how well you think Huff will do in 2011 with the bat, and whether or not either he or Belt can handle LF. I still believe they have not made any improvement, aside from the obvious, which is full years from Posey and Bumgarner. That being said, they're still the favorites in the West with the staff, and they have some upside in both Belt and Sandoval. I still like the team a lot, but would love some more creativity I suppose.