Talking Belt and Brown with Wendy Thurm

There is an odd parallel between two prospects one wouldn’t have thought would be paired together: Brandon Belt of the San Francisco Giants and the Phillies’ Domonic Brown. Both were very highly-regarded prospects, but have had trouble finding full-time work at the Major League level, and not for a lack of skill. I caught up with Wendy Thurm, a Giants fan and fantastic baseball writer, to investigate some of the similarities between the two players. Wendy is a contributing writer at FanGraphs and Baseball Nation. She founded HangingSliders.com, a baseball blog with analysis, commentary, poetry and humor. You can follow her on Twitter @hangingsliders.

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1. Tell us a little bit about Brandon Belt the prospect. What was his ceiling expected to be, and where did he find himself in prospect rankings?

The Giants selected Belt in the fifth round of the 2009 amateur draft out of the University of Texas (Austin). A natural first baseman, Belt dominated the minor leagues in 2010, his first season of professional baseball. He hit .352/.455/.620 in 136 games from A+ to AAA. Baseball America ranked Belt 23rd on its Top 100 prospects list for 2011. He also was the Giants’ top prospect heading into the 2011 season.

2. What factors have contributed to his inability to obtain a job as a MLB regular?

The Giants added Belt as a non-roster invitee to their 2011 spring-training camp, with no expectation he’d make the big-league club. Then Belt batted .306 with five doubles and three home runs in 25 games, and outfielder Cody Ross sustained a calf injury, opening a roster spot.

In his first seventeen games, Belt supplanted veteran Aubrey Huff at first base, forcing Huff to play out of position in the outfield, with often disastrous consequences for the Giants. And while Huff struggled at the plate, Belt was worse, hitting only .192/.300/.269. With Cody Ross ready to return from the disabled list, the Giants optioned Belt to Triple-A on April 21. Again, Belt dominated AAA pitching.

When Buster Posey suffered a season-ending injury in late May, Belt returned to San Francisco. That visit, too, was short-lived, after Cardinals pitcher Trever Miller hit Belt on the wrist with fastball in early June, resulting in a hairline fracture. With his wrist healed, Belt returned to action, but at Triple-A. Again, he dominated. Again, the Giants recalled Belt, but only to take the spot of an injured player. Again, he struggled, was optioned, and then recalled. He ended the season with an unremarkable 225/.306/.412 line.

The Giants stuck with Huff at first base for most of 2011, in large part owing to his two-year, $20 million contract. The team also trusted Huff would eventually get his offense going. He didn’t, ending the season with a .246/.306/.370.

3. How would you have handled the situation differently, in terms of personnel?

Like many prospects who dominate at Triple-A, Belt struggled initially at the big-league level. What he needed most was regular playing time. What he got was a lot of skepticism from manager Bruce Bochy and general manager Brian Sabean. I wouldn’t have given Huff nearly as much time to get his game going. I wouldn’t have given outfielders Andres Torres and Aaron Rowand nearly as much time to get their games going. I would have found a way to play Belt, either at first base or in the outfield, nearly every day.

4. Do you think Belt’s career is redeemable, and if so, can it be done as a Giant?

Yes. Belt is still a top prospect with the potential to be a special player at the plate (and a decent one in the field). He performed well in winter ball in the Dominican League and has had a productive spring. And yet, there is still debate within the Giants’ front office about whether Belt will make the Opening Day roster. So it’s unclear to me whether he can succeed as a Giant.

I would have penciled in Belt as the everyday left fielder for 2012, leaving Brett Pill as Huff’s backup at first, and a nice lefty-righty platoon partner. Pill is a career minor- leaguer. In 53 plate appearances last September, he hit .320/.321/.560 while playing first base for a bit more than 110 innings. That would have given Belt the regular playing time both he and the Giants need, and set him up to take over first base when Huff’s contract expires after this season.

Instead, the Giants traded for Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan slotting Cabrera for left field and Pagan for center. Nate Schierholtz won the right-field job last season with outstanding defense and consistent hitting and was expected to be the everyday right fielder heading into spring training.

This spring, non-roster invitee Gregor Blanco is hitting the leather off the ball and running the bases like a gazelle. At 28, Blanco’s been playing professional baseball since 2006, but only has one full season in the majors. In 2008, Blanco played left and center field for the Braves and hit .251/.366/.309. Since then, he’s bounced around with the Braves, Nationals, and Royals seeing only 317 major-league plate appearances. His career line is .258/.358/.324.

From what’s been reported, it appears that Belt, Pill and Blanco are fighting for two roster spots. If it were my decision, based on what we know now, I would send Pill to Triple-A, make Blanco the fouth outfielder and give Belt most of the playing time at first base. Huff would see some action at first and in left field, leaving Bruce Bochy to juggle the remaining outfield playing time among Cabrera, Pagan, Schierholtz and Blanco.

5. Who do you see having the more productive career when all is said and done, Belt or Domonic Brown?

I hear about the parallels often in that both Belt and Brown are highly-regarded prospects who have not been giving the opportunities to prove themselves in the majors. I’m not as familiar with Brown, obviously, so it’s difficult to say who will have the “more productive” career, even just looking at past performance and projections. Belt has more power potential; Brown more speed. Each needs regular playing time at the big-league level in order to develop their skills fully and to play well consistently. My hope is that it happens – and happens soon – for both players.

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Thanks again to Wendy for taking the time to share her insight on Belt and the Giants. Make sure to read her stuff at FanGraphsBaseball Nation, and Hanging Sliders, as well as on Twitter @hangingsliders. Let’s hope her optimism about Belt’s future applies equally to that of Brown. The success of the Phillies in 2013 and beyond — some would even argue 2012 — has a lot to do with Brown’s ability to contribute.

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