Countdown to Spring Training: No. 6, Brandon Belt

belt.jpgIf there’s one player that Giants fans will be watching this spring, it’s Brandon Belt.

The left-handed hitting first baseman/outfielder made quite a splash in his rookie season of professional baseball.

After being drafted in the fifth round in the 2009 Amateur Draft, Belt signed so late that he didn’t make his pro debut until 2010 for high Class A San Jose.

In 77 games in San Jose, Belt his .383 with a .492 OBP and a .628 slugging percentage. His numbers only dipped slightly when he made the move to Double-A Richmond — .337-.413-.623 in 46 games.

He completed the season at Triple-A, where his averaged dipped to .229 in just 61 at-bats in 13 games — a very small sample. However, his OBP (.393) and slugging (.563) remained very good. Belt also hit .372 in 22 games in the Arizona Fall League.

The Giants have said they will give Belt every chance of winning a spot on the 2011 opening day roster. They have also said Belt will only break camp with the big club in 2011 if he is an everyday player.

So the reasons to allow Belt to open the season with the Giants are clear: if he shows he’s ready to play, then he should play. And the Giants clearly could use whatever offense they can get. Also, his ability to play first base or left field adds to his allure. Plus, the Giants could use another left-handed bat in the lineup, with only Aubrey Huff and switch-hitters Andres Torres and Pablo Sandoval there right now.

But there are other reasons for the Giants to wait on Belt, and let him start the season at Fresno.

No reason to rush: The Giants won a World Series title with basically the same lineup that they’ll roll out in 2011. So there’s no reason to rush Belt to the majors for added offense. As it is, the Giants will have some key roster decisions to make. If Belt makes the opening day roster, it likely comes as the expense of 1B Travis Ishikawa. Belt’s left-hand bat and above-average glove would make Ishikawa expendable. And Ishikawa is out of options, meaning he’d have to be cut or traded.

Don’t want to get it wrong: The Giants don’t want to break camp with the big club, only to show that he’s not quite ready for the bigs. If he has to be sent down in May, who do the Giants have in Fresno to call up, if Nate Schierholtz and Ishikawa have been dealt away. By waiting, the Giants could bring Belt up when another player heads to the DL. This would give the Giants the chance to see how Belt handles big-league pitching without sacrificing any organization depth.

Midseason spark: It can’t be understated how much the addition of Buster Posey to the lineup last May provided a spark to the Giants when they needed it. Belt could be that spark in 2011.

Arbitration clock: If Belt opens the season in the majors — and stays there — his arbitration clock starts ticking, putting him on track to be arbitration eligible after the 2013 season. The Giants will have a payroll of $120 million for 2011. If you count players under contract or arbitration eligible, the payroll may already sit at $100 million for 2012. And that doesn’t count any free agent deals needed to fill potential holes at 2B, SS, outfield or bullpen. Tim Lincecum and Brian Wilson will be eligible for free agency after the 2013 season, and Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner will be eligible for arbitration. Do the Giants really want to add Brandon Belt to that list? By waiting until late May or June to call up Belt, they can push that arbitration date back until after 2014.

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