Easy Answer: the Giants should play Brandon Belt as often as possible. At first base, his natural position. Or at his adopted position, left field. Or even in right field, on occasion.
But now is not the time for easy answers.
After making the Giants' Opening Day roster in 2011, Belt finds himself, heading into this season, fighting for a spot on the 25-man roster. For those familiar with Belt's 2011 odyssey, this isn't much of a surprise.
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.
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. A fairy-tale beginning for the Giants' highest-ranked prospect.
The fairy tale turned dark quickly. 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. A human yo-yo. 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, signed in the euphoria of the 2010 World Series victory. The team also trusted Huff would eventually get his offense going. He didn't, ending the season with a .246/.306/.370 line and the lowest slugging percentage among all qualifying first basemen. When the season was over, manager Bruce Bochy had choice words about Huff being out of shape. It sounded like a warning that Huff better get his act together, lest he lose his job. But Bochy is well-known for sticking with veterans long past their expiration date.
Last September, the Giants introduced another character into the drama when they called up career minor leaguer Brett Pill. In 53 plate appearances, he hit .320/.321/.560 while playing first base for a bit more than 110 innings.
The Giants could have penciled in Belt as the everyday left fielder for 2012, leaving Pill as Huff's backup at first, and a nice lefty-righty platoon partner. 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. Then Carlos Beltrán showed up, took over right field, shifting Schierholtz to left before he suffered a foot injury in August and missed most of the rest of the season. Beltran is gone and Schierholtz is penciled in as the right fielder for 2012.
Again, no clear plan or position for Belt.
Most, if not all, pre-season projection models see Belt as the most productive hitter as compared to Huff, Pill, Cabrera, Pagan and Schierholtz. Taking an average of the projections made by Steamer, RotoChamp, Marcel, Bill James, and ZIPS (all available on Fangraphs), Belt is projected to have a .350 wOBA (weighted on-base average). All the others have projected wOBAs in the .320 to .330 range. Projections aren't always right, of course, but that's a pretty consistent opinion that Belt will be the best hitter among the group.
And now, a new wrinkle.
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.
On Tuesday, Giants broadcaster Duane Kuiper told San Francisco sports radio host Brian Murphy that Belt, Pill and Blanco are fighting for two roster spots. All three are playing well this spring, but it's only been two weeks and roughly 25 at bats for each player.
If it were my decision, based on what we know now, I would send Pill to Triple-A, make Blanco the fifth 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.
There will be injuries and slumps, and adjustments to be made. But Belt needs stability and regular playing time to reach his potential. And the Giants need Belt's potential to improve upon their historically-poor offense in 2011 and return to the postseason.