COMMENTARY | The San Francisco Giants have had some pretty great first basemen throughout their history: names like Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, Will Clark, and J.T. Snow immediately spring to mind. On the flip side, there have also been some, uh, not-so-great first basemen in that group: names like Todd Benzinger, Mark Carreon, Lance Niekro, Shea Hillenbrand, Ryan Klesko, and others I've mercifully forgotten.
It's too early to tell in which category Brandon Belt will end up. He has the tools to be great, but baseball is riddled with stories of young players with all the tools who don't end up meeting high expectations. The Giants are expecting a lot from Belt, and for the first time since his debut in 2011 the first base job is clearly his without anyone else lurking in the background to take it. Will he take the job and run with it? Will he end up being more of a Will Clark than a Lance Niekro?
My answers: yes, and boy do I hope so.
Belt put himself on the map as a prospect in 2010 when he tore through three levels of minor league ball in a year. His combined stat line for that season was .352/.455/.620 to go along with 23 HR, 112 RBIs and 22 SB. His performance that year, coupled with a strong spring, earned Belt the opening day start at first base for the Giants in 2011. He didn't hold the job for long, as his struggles to adjust to major league pitching (and Aubrey Huff's struggles playing the outfield) led to a minor league demotion. Belt was called up again later that year, but injuries and inconsistencies plagued him and he didn't end up with the kind of season many had expected after seeing his gaudy minor league numbers. Belt spent the entire season in the big leagues in 2012, but didn't gain a solid foothold as the starting first baseman until late in the season and found himself out of the lineup quite often as a result.
This year looks to be different for Belt, and Belt has the look of a more confident hitter. It started with a torrid stretch at the end of last season that saw him put up a post-All Star game line of .293/.362/.423, and the hot hitting has continued this spring. As of this writing, Belt sports a .464/.464/.929 line and leads the Giants in home runs. He's hitting everything in sight, and hitting with authority. Belt looks like a legitimate middle-of-the-order bat, something the Giants have been wanting to see from him since they called him up originally.
Belt has looked more aggressive at the plate this spring, attacking pitches in the strike zone and driving them all over the field. He's always been a selective hitter, as evidenced by the high number of walks he's taken over his career and his ability to work the count. Being selective hasn't always worked to his advantage, though. Bruce Bochy has mentioned before that he'd like to see Belt modify his approach at the plate, and Belt's failure to do so (in Bochy's eyes) likely cost him playing time last year. If Belt could find a way to balance his great batting eye with the aggression Bochy and the Giants' brain trust wanted to see from him, his place in the Giants' lineup would be cemented. And while the old adage of "it's only spring training" still holds, Belt looks to have done just that so far this spring.
With Belt playing every day, the Giants will be able to field a much more dynamic lineup up and down the order. He'll likely hit sixth to start the year, sandwiched between Hunter Pence and Gregor Blanco, and provide the Giants with another dangerous bat further down the lineup. He can draw walks and work a pitcher, which not many in the Giants' lineup can do. Belt has deceptive speed that allows him to stretch singles into doubles, doubles into triples, and to steal bases on occasion. His power hasn't yet manifested itself at the big league level, but he's definitely shown flashes of it. If he can continue to develop his power stroke this year (and judging by his spring stats, he is) the Giants will have four hitters capable of delivering 20-plus home runs, something they haven't done since 2006.
It's tantalizing to think of what the Giants' lineup will look like if Belt has truly turned the corner in his major league career. The Giants have been waiting patiently (and sometimes impatiently) to see the hitter who destroyed minor league pitching in '10 show up at AT&T Park, and this may be the year it happens. Belt has the ability to hit for average, hit for power, take walks, and run. If he can put it all together, he's going to be a special player for a long time.
He doesn't need to be McCovey, Cepeda, Clark, or Snow. He just needs to be Brandon Belt.
Dave Tobener has written about the Giants for close to a decade and has contributed articles to Yahoo Sports' Big League Stew. You can find him on Twitter @gggiants.