Giants giving top talent Belt shot at starting role
First, left winnable positions in open competition in Scottsdale
SAN FRANCISCO -- Seeing Brandon Belt take his cuts last year prompted San Jose Giants hitting coach Gary Davenport to recall another graceful and gifted left-handed batter: Will Clark.Davenport mentioned this to Clark one day when the six-time All-Star, now a special assistant for the big league Giants, visited the organization's high Class A affiliate. Clark quickly disagreed. "He has a better swing than I did," Clark said. That might sound preposterous to legions of fans who cherish the memory of Clark's syrupy, yet savage, stroke. But it reinforces the notion that Belt's an uncommonly talented performer who might become yet another first-year offensive dynamo for the Giants, following Pablo Sandoval (2009) and Buster Posey ('10). Belt will be under considerable scrutiny as he enters his first Major League Spring Training next month. The reigning World Series champions believe that he has a legitimate chance to earn a spot in the lineup at either first base or left field (Aubrey Huff almost surely will occupy the spot Belt doesn't). General manager Brian Sabean has emphasized that Belt will begin the season in the Minors to continue his development if he doesn't win a starting job with San Francisco. Davenport and managers Andy Skeels and Steve Decker, who watched Belt develop at each of his three Minor League stops last year, discussed what observers can expect from the Giants' newest top prospect once he arrives in Scottsdale, Ariz. At 22, Belt already seems to possess admirable restraint as a hitter. Among his impressive statistics during his first professional season -- featuring a .352 batting average, a .455 on-base percentage and a .620 slugging percentage, to go with 23 home runs and 112 RBIs in 136 games -- was the sizable total of 93 walks. "I'm just amazed how he lays off pitches at such a young age," Davenport said, adding that Belt's refusal to chase pitches forces opponents to throw him hittable strikes. "Like Barry Bonds, when the ball is two inches off the plate, he's not going to swing at it." Part of Davenport's job description is fixing a hitter's flaws before they become habits. He didn't have to work much with Belt, a fifth-round selection out of the University of Texas in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft. "I saw him for half a year and I kept looking for weaknesses," Davenport said. Belt struggled somewhat at Triple-A Fresno, batting .229 in 13 games after hitting .383 in 77 games with San Jose and .337 in 46 games for Double-A Richmond. But he still posted a .956 OPS with Fresno and demonstrated sufficient aptitude to Decker, the Grizzlies' manager, who noted that Fresno faced most of the Pacific Coast League's top teams after Belt joined the club toward the end of the season. "If you get Brandon out a certain way, he has the ability to make adjustments," Decker said. "A lot of times, it takes 1,500 at-bats in the Minor Leagues for guys to be able to do that." Defensively, Belt seems prepared to give the Giants the flexibility manager Bruce Bochy cherishes. Davenport praised Belt's skills at first base: "He's very close to J.T. Snow, [Travis] Ishikawa, that caliber." Skeels, who has rejoined San Jose's staff after managing Richmond last season, seconded that opinion. "He can flat-out pick it at first base," Skeels said. "He has a strong, accurate arm." Skeels added that Belt's almost as capable in left field, noting: "He has great instincts. He gets great jumps and reads and he goes to the line well." It was generally agreed that Belt's mental and emotional approach should help him thrive professionally. "He's very self-effacing and ultra-competitive once the game starts," Skeels said. Ideally, this outlook also will enable Belt to cope with the expectations and the evaluative pairs of eyes that are bound to follow him everywhere this spring. "I don't think Major League camp will bother him," Decker said.
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.