On opening day, both the San Francisco Giants and Atlanta Braves, teams with playoff-caliber rosters and championship hopes, made bold decisions to turn their starting first base jobs over to rookies. Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman and San Francisco’s Brandon Belt were both ranked among the top 25 prospects in the game by Baseball America, but there is always a risk involved in such moves.
Predictably, both Freeman and Belt struggled early on. On the morning of April 19, nearly three weeks into the season, Freeman was hitting .224 with a .668 OPS in Atlanta, and Belt was hitting .196 with a .580 OPS in San Francisco. That night, Freeman went 2 for 4 with a double and a homer. That same night, after striking out in a pinch-hit appearance, Belt was sent down to the minor leagues.
It’s not as if you can pin the Braves’ and Giants’ divergent fortunes – the Braves were 20 games over .500 and holding a commanding lead in the wild card entering Friday, while the Giants, having lost 10 of their previous 13 games, woke up Friday in second place in the NL West for the first time in six weeks – solely on the different choices they made regarding their top hitting prospects back in April.
But it’s also true that the Braves’ faith in Freeman has paid off – he was hitting .294 with 15 homers and an .831 OPS entering Friday, and is among the leading candidates for NL rookie of the year – while the Giants’ lack of similar faith in Belt, who has had two additional call-ups since his April demotion, but who is back in the minors now, may be hurting them.
A year ago, the Giants won the World Series with an offense that often sputtered and coughed, scoring just barely enough runs (697 for the season) to allow the team’s vaunted pitching staff to do the rest – a low-scoring, white-knuckle style of play that famously became known as “torture.”
This year, the Giants wish they had last year’s offense. The 2011 version is not just bad – it’s historically bad. They are on pace to score just 559 runs – which would rank as the third-worst in the wild card era, behind only the 2010 Mariners (513) and the 2011 Mariners (on pace for 539). That they are even in the playoff hunt at all is a testament to the brilliance of their pitching staff.
“You’re in something like this, and you think, ‘Are we ever going to come out of it?’” Manager Bruce Bochy told reporters as Wednesday, as the Giants wrapped up a dismal 3-7 homestand. “And we will.”
The Giants have been hurt by the injuries to Buster Posey and Freddy Sanchez, and the impact of their blockbuster trade for Carlos Beltran has been negated by a wrist injury. They are playing career backups at catcher (El Whiteside) and second base (Jeff Keppinger), and they recently replaced one washed up shortstop (Miguel Tejada) with another (Orlando Cabrera).
Meantime, at first base, veteran Aubrey Huff is producing an OPS (.685) that is 200 points below his 2010 production, but continues to hit in the middle of the Giants’ lineup and hasn’t had a day off yet this month.
What about Belt? He’s still at Class AAA Fresno, where he’s putting up a gaudy batting line of .304/.444/.509. Those kinds of numbers might look good in the middle of the Giants’ sagging offense.
Bochy isn’t the first manager who was loyal to a fault to the veterans who won championships for him in the past. On one level, his faith in Huff, one of the pivotal figures in last year’s title run, is admirable. Although Belt is likely to get called up when rosters expand in September, barring an injury to someone else it seems highly unlikely he will get significant playing time down the stretch in a pennant race.
But at this point, the Giants might be better served showing some faith in young Brandon Belt – even in the heat of a pennant race, even at the expense of Huff. As the Braves showed with Freeman nearly four months ago, that faith is often rewarded.