Let me take you into another reality, a fantasy world if you will. One in which every Rockie fan can relate. Why? Because we can.
The year is 2009. Todd Helton had just finished off an injury-plagued frustrating 2008 campaign in which he missed nearly as many games as he played in. Helton bounced back with a strong 2009, but with no corner infield prospects, Rockies fans still wanted a first baseman of the future in the 2009 draft.
Colorado took Tyler Matzek and Tim Wheeler in the first round. Reliever Rex Brothers in the supplemental round. Nolan Arenado in the second round. Of those four, three remain very strong choices, backing up the then-ranked #1 draft by Baseball America. We can't really complain about those picks. Then follows Benjamin Paulsen and Kent Matthes, and then in this alternate reality, the Rockies nab their first baseman in the fifth round, a 21-year-old left-handed hitter from Texas.
He signs late and doesn't debut until 2010, but that debut in High-A is mind-blowingly spectacular. His line in High-A: .383 batting average with a .492 OBP, .628 SLG, 10 HR, 62 RBI and 18 steals in 77 games. Oh, and more walks than strikeouts. Those are video game numbers. The first baseman leaps to AA and finishes his first professional season in AAA. For the year, he sports .352/.455/.620 line. That's a fifth round pick in his first professional season.
After that, he reports to the Arizona Fall League, where he continues to rake to the tune of a .372/.432/.616 slash line. Just some absolutely mind-boggling numbers.
That magical 2010 transforms our prospect in 18 months from a 5th round pick to Keith Law's #17 overall prospect. Better than any other Rockies' prospect. Better than Matzek. Better than Wilin Rosario. And he's just 22 and in AAA. First baseman of the future for sure.
Sound too good to be true? Well, it is. I said this was a fantasy. But the player is real, and every single detail above happened exactly as I presented it except one: he was not actually drafted by the Rockies. No, Brandon Belt was drafted by the San Francisco Giants. Damn.
Of course, one cannot be critical of the Rockies for passing on Belt five times. Every MLB team did at least four times, and the young Texan was not thought of incredibly highly when drafted. Belt wasn't even mentioned in Fangraphs' "Future Talent" piece on the Giants 11 months ago. And here is Andy Seiler of MLB Bonus Baby in June 2009 on the fifth-rounder:
"a surprising overdraft...Belt, despite blessed with exceptional size and good natural power, lacks the performance numbers or tools to be drafted this high. Since being drafted in the 11th round in both 2006 and 2007 (Red Sox and Braves), Belt has been a huge disappointment, with relatively weak hitting, making him going this high a big surprise. He's got good tools at first, and with mechanical adjustments, he might become a more powerful hitter, but it's just not likely."
Now, Belt is a popular prospect all across scouting communities in addition to making making statmongers salivate. His stock rose more in 2010 even than Mike Trout, widely considered the pinnacle example of a breakout player. Kevin Goldstein went so far as to say "it was a surprise in some respects that the Giants re-upped with Aubrey Huff."
It should be noted that Belt and Huff both theoretically "can" play left field and first base, so it is possible both could be in the lineup with too much struggle. And it could be happening soon. While he is unlikely to surface in the major leagues before midseason (like Buster Posey), Bruce Bochy has said Belt "could make this club" out of spring training. At any rate, we should be expecting his arrival at some point in 2011.
Brandon Belt's scouting report reads like a complete dream. Goldstein:
Belt has plus-plus pure hitting ability, showing no real weaknesses against lefties or righties, any pitch type, or thrown in any location. His hands are tremendous, and he's equally adept at going with pitches or turning on them with plenty of bat speed. The bat plays even better due to outstanding plate discipline and pitch recognition. He's a very good defensive first baseman, and runs well enough to play in the outfield, where he held is own in some late-season looks.
Every Rockie fan is jealous right now. Even Baseball America's Jim Callis, Belt's biggest detractor among prospect writers, feels Belt is a legitimate 20/20 candidate. That's right. He has some speed too. Youth, plate discipline, pitch recognition, plate coverage, bat speed, defense....What are we missing?
The answer is power. The knock on Belt all along has been adequate but not MLB-first-baseman-caliber power. That concern remains even after his monster season. AT&T Park, with its HR park factor for LHB of 82, won't help him there at all.
Most agree he's a mid-20's home run hitter at best. Of course, there's still value to a first baseman who can't hit for tremendous power, hence the genesis of Will Clark comps. And at this point, who is going to bet that Belt can't transform himself again?
Should Belt develop into an All-star caliber hitter as some see with a 2011 debut, he will follow precisely the same path of teammate Buster Posey, who went from draft pick to an integral part of the MLB lineup in just two years. It hardly seems fair, doesn't it? That's like having a Tulo in back-to-back years. Our good friend Grant over at McCovey Chronicles reminds us that this is rather unusual in San Francisco:
It's weird for the Giants to have another top hitting prospect come up so soon after Posey. Between Matt Williams and Posey, there was Bill Mueller. That's it. That's 20+ years without an All-Star hitter.
All-Star hitter...Aren't we getting a little carried away here? Belt has just one minor league season under his, ahem, "belt," and there have been prospects with elite minor league seasons before that haven't turned into All-Stars. It is a reasonable argument. Heck, Carson Cistulli actually wrote an article titled Charlie Blackmon>Brandon Belt in November in which he wrote "I'll make a bet with someone that Charlie Blackmon outhits (Belt)." (Woo!)
Elite MLB success for Belt is not a sure thing, but the sheer avalanche of consensus scouting reports of a complete hitter is tough to ignore. The numbers is his stat line are tough to ignore. His perfect baseball name is tough to ignore. Belt isn't a sure thing at this point, but from everything we know currently, he projects to be a name Rockies fans are going to learn to hate for several years.