When trying to decide what the Giants’ X factor is, you could probably run down a few different paths. Pitching health and infield defense are definitely directions that I considered before writing this post. Without pitching health, like most teams, the Giants are in hot water. If you remove Tim Lincecum or Matt Cain from the equation that is the 2011 Giants, well, you might not like the answer. Such is the life of any pitching heavy team.
Infield defense will also most likely be another hot topic this season. Reports on Miguel Tejada this spring have been disappointing, to say the least. However, as a team, the Giants boast one of the most extreme flyball staffs in all of baseball – since 2008, the Giants have a team flyball percentage (FB%) of 39.3%, that’s the 2nd highest FB% in baseball – and the team might not be hurt as much as your average team by playing Tejada at SS.
In the end, I came to Brandon Belt as the X factor for 2011. By now, you’ve most likely heard of Brandon Belt as a prospect. He’s a consensus top-25 prospect in baseball at the moment. His rise to top prospect is well documented, but here’s the cliff notes: An unheralded pick in the 5th round of the 2009 draft out of Texas University, questionable hitting mechanics in college led to so-so results, the Giants changed Belt’s hitting mechanics and he took off, destroyed three levels of minor league baseball in 2010 by hitting .352/.455/.620. As a prospect, Belt has done everything well. Scouts like his defense, he’s a solid baserunner, and he’s shown a good ability to make contact while controlling the strike zone.
Cody Ross’ current injury might open up the path to the major league roster for Brandon Belt a little sooner than expected. When Belt ascends to the major league club, he’ll take over first base with Aubrey Huff shifting into LF. Yet, Belt’s time table for reaching the majors is still fuzzy. The Giants have the option to be patient with him, and it’s possible that they’ll start him in AAA Fresno in ’11. Current LF options include Pat Burrell, Mark DeRosa (health caveat, here) and Aubrey Huff.
Belt should serve as slippage insurance for Burrell and Huff. While Burrell was very good for the Giants, he’s still a player-type that ages poorly. If he’s posting a .850 OPS, you can live with his poor defense. If he’s not hitting, he shouldn’t be starting. Huff was one of the bigger surprises on the Giants’ team last season, but expecting another 5.7 fWAR season from him isn’t realistic. There’s a good chance Huff will be more of a 2.5 win player in ’11. Burrell seems even more chaotic to project. For those interested, the ZiPS projection system has Burrell posting a slash line of .239/.342/.438 (108 OPS+). Which is a good for a bench bat, but for a guy that can’t defend, it isn’t good.
When Belt gets the call is anyone’s guess, but once he arrives, if he can live up to his minor league hype, he could inject the Giants with another competent bat. ZiPS projects Belt at .266/.357/.440 (113 OPS+), which would realistically make him one of the top three or four hitters on the Giants. Of course, projection systems aren’t guarantees, but everything that Belt did in the minors in 2010 point to a special talent. If Belt arrives in the same manner as Buster Posey (hey, no pressure!) then the Giants will have a young trio of hitters (Posey, Sandoval, Belt) all with solid upside. When was the last time that happened? For fans of young players and prospect watchers, it could be another very exciting year in San Francisco.