Giants have tough call to make on Belt
If things work out the way a lot of people expect them to, Brandon Belt will look back in a couple of years and laugh about the way his Major League career started.
Or didn't start.
Or started and then sputtered.
Or got delayed by a variety of issues, some related to contracts, some to circumstances.
For instance, there's Gregor Blanco. When Spring Training began, he didn't seem to be the guy who'd push Belt back to the Minor Leagues.
Blanco's amazing spring is one of the things we love about this time of the year. Once upon a time, the Braves thought he might have a chance to be a pretty good player.
That's when stuff began to happen. Blanco got traded to the Royals and then to the Nationals. He played decently, but not enough to turn heads. Last season, he underwent wrist surgery, didn't get a single at-bat in the Major Leagues and was cut loose by the Nats.
The Giants picked Blanco up on the cheap last winter, not really certain what they were getting. He's a guy plenty of scouts like because he has blazing speed and a very good glove and is easy to project as something more than he has been.
Blanco is just 28 years old, so it wasn't like he was running out of chances, but this spring was still important to him. He was way down the outfield depth chart when the Giants began Spring Training, but has sprinted his way onto the roster with a .419 batting average and nine stolen bases.
So when Giants senior vice president and general manager Brian Sabean, manager Bruce Bochy and their staff sit down to make the final roster cuts, they seemingly have to find a spot for Blanco, who can play any outfield spot and be a valuable resource off the bench late in games.
Blanco's presence complicates things for Belt and perhaps adds another bump in the road. Years from now, when Belt is a star, when he shows up at Spring Training with a job already locked down, he'll look back and think it was all pretty funny the way it began.
At the moment, though, Belt is going to be one of the tougher decisions any team has to make. He's 23 years old and has a .343 career average in the Minor Leagues. In other words, he has nothing left to prove at that level.
This spring, Belt showed up with plenty to prove in the Major Leagues after hitting .225 and getting just 187 at-bats in a frustrating rookie season. He was named the Giants' starting first baseman near the end of Spring Training, but ended up getting sent back to the Minors three times and spending time on the disabled list.
This spring was about proving to the Giants that the hype that accompanied Belt to AT&T Park last season was justified. He has done that. Belt showed up game-ready after a stint in winter ball and has batted .333 and is tied for the team lead with three home runs. He has played his natural position of first base, but has also logged time in both left and right field.
In deciding how best to use Belt at the beginning of the season, the Giants face a couple of issues.
First, Aubrey Huff has had a very solid spring. Bochy and Sabean publicly challenged him to get in better shape than he was in 2011, and Huff has done that. His veteran presence -- and his $10 million salary -- work in his favor as well. Bochy calls him "critical" to the lineup.
Melky Cabrera figures in as well, and so does Angel Pagan. Sabean acquired them during an offseason in which he was determined to upgrade the National League's worst offense. Cabrera has been penciled in play left field since the moment he arrived from the Royals for Jonathan Sanchez. Likewise, Pagan is expected to play center.
And there's Nate Schierholtz. The Giants consider his defense in the quirky right field at AT&T Park important, and until the last few days, it seemed likely he would open in right field regardless.
And that's the decision the Giants face with Belt. Is their original blueprint of Huff at first and Cabrera, Pagan and Schierholtz in the outfield still the best one? Have Blanco and Belt not just played their way onto the team, but played their way into different roles than have been projected for them?
Could Bochy decide to shift Cabrera from left to right, put Huff in left and use Belt at first base? Could Blanco be pressing Pagan in center?
At the very least, Belt knows he will be playing somewhere. He's too young and too valuable to be sitting on the bench, even in the big leagues. Belt has had a good attitude about it this spring, saying if he gets sent back to Triple-A Fresno, he'll go there and work on getting better.
Belt is part of a larger story with the Giants. For years, they gathered older players to put around Barry Bonds and keep the team in contention.
Now, they've got a Minor League system that could produce Major Leaguers at six or seven positions over the next couple of years. Belt is the brightest of those stars, but there are others.
These may be tense days for Belt as he awaits the final cutdown to find out what the Giants have in mind for him at the beginning of the 2012 season. But they believe he'll have a long and productive Major League career, and in the end, that's all that's really important.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.