First things first: I'm making a few assumptions in this post. I have to, since this is two years in the future and I don't have any trash for my Mr. Fusion, so I don't know what's going to happen. If this bothers you, then you probably shouldn't read this post. Second, I gladly look forward to any and all viewpoints, so if you disagree with me, let me know, I'm happy to listen to other people's point of view.
I know what a lot of you are thinking: "Just another Brandon Belt fanboy who just ignores his current major league troubles." Well, you got me. I'm a big fan of Brandon Belt. I'm not ignoring his struggles. I know that he can't hit hard fastballs in on his hands. But the fact is that with a middling average, he still manages to have the highest OBP on the team. Simply put, he gets himself into fantastic hitter counts. I was at the Giants vs. Brewers game on Sunday; he finished 0-3 with two "intentional" walks. I put "intentional" in quotes because on the first walk, he got ahead 3-0 legitimately, and the decision was made to go ahead and walk him. On the other 3 at bats, he got ahead in the count each and every time, though of course he made an out each time. My opinion is that as he continues to get at bats and work ahead in the counts, he'll start to make more solid contact and drive the ball more. Also, for those who want him to only hit against right handed pitchers, I'll point out that his average against lefties (albeit in only 56 PA A.K.A. the small sample size caveat) is over 100 points higher than vs. righties. I know that this year there is a lot of confusion over who should start at first, Belt, Pill, or Huff. Obviously at the end of the year, Huff is going to be gone. There is no way (I'm hoping) that Huff will be re-signed. Unless of course he's got a voodoo doll of Sabean and keeps sticking it in the head with a pin titled: "Give Huff lots and lots of money" (again, here's hoping this isn't going on.) Which leaves Belt and Pill as First Base options on the 40 man roster. I suppose for giggles you could include Angel Villalona but for the purposes of this post I'm just gonna focus on Pill and Belt. Here is a list of Free Agent First Basemen that will be available after the 2012 season:
Lance Berkman (36)
Russell Branyan (37)
Jason Giambi (42)
Brad Hawpe (34)
Eric Hinske (35)
Aubrey Huff (36) - $10MM club option with a $2MM buyout
Casey Kotchman (30)
Adam LaRoche (33) - $10MM mutual option with a $1MM buyout
Carlos Lee (37)
James Loney (29)
Xavier Nady (34)
Mike Napoli (31)
Lyle Overbay (36)
Carlos Pena (35)
Ty Wigginton (35) - $4MM club option with a $500K buyout
(Thanks to MLB Trade Rumors for the Information)
The only First Baseman that wouldn't drive me insane if the Giants signed him would be Mike Napoli. In fact, if the Giants signed Mike Napoli I would be totally fine with that and we could forget all about everything I just wrote. However, unless the Giants absolutely blow him out of the water with a free agent contract, which I would not be wild about, I highly doubt that he signs up to play half his games in AT&T, as well as a large portion in the other cavernous NL West ballparks. So I'm going to take him off the table. Now, Sabean being Sabean, there are lots of other "veterans" for him to buy up and indulge his weird... lets call it a fetish. Let's pretend, for the purpose of this post, that one of his assistants tackles him as he prepares to hand a 4 year, 32 million dollar deal to Xavier Nady, and we somehow manage to sneak through the offseason without him screwing things up. (Yes, I realize that he's been doing this almost as long as I've been alive, but let's call a spade a spade, he's not very good with the offensive free agent signings.) So in 2013 you have Belt and Pill, most likely platooning since Bochy will still
be blocking out the sun managing the team. Since right handed pitchers start much more often than left handers, there being more of them, that means Belt will probably get 350-400 PAs, maybe even a few more. With the increased playing time comes increased experience, and, again hoping, increased ability to adjust to Major League pitching. So assume that he hits around .270/.390/.450, not out of the realm of possibility, and in fact fairly close to his ZiPs projections for this year. I would hope that if he could put up close to a full season of those numbers, the team would finally hand him the First Base job. Finally, this brings us to the 2014 season and the crux of my argument.
Brandon Belt starts the 2014 season as the Giants first baseman, full time, against lefties and righties. Now, think about the other first basemen in the National League. Votto is now clearly the best first baseman in the league, with Pujols and Fielder both moved to the AL. Ryan Howard would probably be 2nd, except that he suffered a very serious knee injury, and injury the saps power, which is just about the only thing that Howard brings to the table. Lets be optomistic and assume that he comes back this year (2012) at 85-90%. Then factor in two years of aging, the inevitable decline of the Phillies offense (and thus, the protection around him in the lineup) and the fact that his peripherals, as good as they are, have been in a steady decline for the past three years, and you have, by 2014, a league average first baseman who strikes out a ton and never played good defense to begin with. Freddie Freeman is a quality young first baseman, and the comparisons are frequently made between Belt and Freeman, so he would be most likely fighting with Belt for an all star spot, so let's set that aside for a moment and consider other first basemen. Ike Davis has considerable power, but he's truly struggling this year, and can't stay healthy anyways, so I doubt he'd get much consideration for a spot on the team. Michael Morse had a fantastic year for the Nationals last year, and played 1st in 85 of his 140 games at the Big League Level. However, he also has suffered a bit from the injury bug and it remains to be seen whether or not last year was a fluke or the real Mike Morse. (It's entirely possible that based on his minor league stats and what time he's seen in the big leagues, he's the real deal, but I'm not going to sign off on him yet, and yes, I realize that's slightly hypocritical given that that's basically exactly what I'm doing with Brandon Belt, but he's not a Giant and also shut up, imaginary critical voices) Anyways, the last first baseman in the East is Gaby Sanchez, and I'm pretty sure we can all agree that his ceiling is that of a league average first baseman and move on, yes? In the Central, there's obviously Votto, whom we've already touched upon. (Yes, ending a sentence with a preposition. Deal with it.) Matt Carpenter seems like he could be a decent first baseman for the Cardinals, but it's going to be tough for him to fill Pujols shoes, which could provide a bit of voter bias, and he's never shown much power in the minors, which is not something you want said about your first baseman. The Astros.. you know what, let's just move on. The Pirates have Casey McGehee playing first, because the Brewers didn't think he'd provide enough offense to be an average third baseman, much less first, so I think we can move on. I highly doubt that Mat Gamel is the answer to the question "who will replace Fielder's offense?" even before he tore his ACL. I think we can all agree Bryan Lahair is a nice story for the Cubbies, but I also think that there's a reason he never got an extended look in the majors before he was 29. I don't think he'll last. That brings us to the NL West. The Dodgers have Loney, who led Grant to introduce a new word into the baseball lexicon: the Loney: a player who hits way below the average expected for his position. Before you try and remind me, yes I know that Loney is going to be a free agent before 2014, and I'll get into that a little later. The padres have Yonder Alonso, who is a good prospect, but has less experience than Belt, and plays in an even worse offensive park, so I don't think he'll be all star caliber by 2014. The Rockies have Todd Helton, who gets older and hits less every single year, and don't really have a sure fire prospect to replace him yet. Finally, the Diamondbacks. Their first baseman is Paul Goldschmidt who has show terrific power, an outstanding ability to make Tim Lincecum cry (I'm kind of assuming at this point. I mean Lincecum almost has to have a Paul Goldschmidt dart board in his apartment at this point right?) but not much else, and his average has taken a pretty huge hit this year, as the league adjusts to him, so I'm not convinced that he can put up all star numbers every year. So at the end of the current first baseman analysis you have the following first baseman, ranked in their ability to put up all star worthy numbers:
I realize that of course the first base situation is fluid, that the guys playing first base in the NL this year won't necessarily be playing here next year, or especially in 2014. Loney obviously will be leaving, as will Helton, McGehee, maybe one or two others. But even the free agents available aren't that much of a huge upgrade for the next couple of years. Napoli is quality, but I seriously doubt that the Rangers are going to let a power hitting catcher (even a part time one) get away from them, which becomes even less likely if they can't hold onto Hamilton. Kendrys Morales and Justin Morneau are both available after the 2013 season, but I haven't seen proof that either of them are the hitters they were before the injuries yet, and they may never be again. Wright is just now getting back on the horse after getting hit in the head by Matt, so it could take years for Morneau to become a good everyday player again, and Morales is looking pretty ragged right now. So I guess the point of my long, rambling soliloquy is to point out that by 2014, it's entirely conceivable that Belt could be one of the top 3 first baseman in the league. I know a lot has to go right, and at this point I might as well appoint him Mayor of lollipop town, but being a huge Belt supporter, I figured why not do both?