Two weeks ago this would have been a much tougher decision. Back then Brandon Belt, heralded 23-year-old rookie, top prospect, was busy exciting the Giants’ fan base. At that point it was tough to even think of Cody Ross, whose spring training injury opened up the spot for Belt in the first place. But now, two weeks later, the decision appears a bit more obvious. Ross figures to return tonight, meaning someone has to go. Belt, who hasn’t recorded an extra base hit since the 8th and who is currently sporting a .281 wOBA, will likely make the trip back to Fresno. That decision is fairly easy. Belt’s eventual return, though, might ride on a bigger decision down the road.
Had Belt been hitting the cover off the ball, maybe the Giants would have found an adequate number of at-bats for him. But since he’s not, it’s more likely that they send him to AAA and give him regular at-bats. It’s a much easier decision to keep Darren Ford around in a bench role, since his future development isn’t as important to the team. Ford, 25, has seen his stock drop in the past few seasons. Before the 2010 season Baseball America rated him the Giants’ No. 13 prospect, but he fell all the way to No. 27 this year after a poor showing in AA. He won’t do much in the majors, but he’s just a bench guy and the Giants lose little by having him sit around for days and days before getting into a game.
This presumed move creates another change for the Giants. Aubrey Huff, who has played outfield in Ross’s absence, will slide back to first base. That’s how the Giants planned it out this off-season, so everything appears to have fallen back into place. The hitch, however, comes from Huff’s performance. He has been only slightly better than Belt, producing a mere .295 wOBA in his 66 PA. I know it’s only a small sample (quick, someone reprimand me), but given Huff’s history it’s not difficult to see this turning into a bigger problem for the Giants.
It’s easy to see why the Giants wanted to keep Huff around after last season. He led the team in wOBA and finished second in WAR, just 0.3 behind Andres Torres. Belt was the team’s top prospect, but as defending world champions they probably wanted a bit more certainty at the position. That desire, unfortunately, led to a two-year, $22 million contract that includes a $10 million option for 2013. That seems like an odd guarantee for a player who is not only blocking a top prospect, but who has displayed inconsistent results in the past.
You can even see it in his daily charts from the past three seasons.
Add in an outlying walk rate from last year, and it becomes pretty apparent that Huff wasn’t going to repeat his numbers. Again, the idea of keeping him around as to not lean on an unproven rookie is one thing. Signing him to a contract that makes him difficult to bench is another. The Giants are now in a tough position. What if Huff experiences another see-saw year and doesn’t hit? What of Belt then?
This could create an even bigger decision for the Giants later in the season. It’s not as though Belt became a bust when he got off to a slow start. Rookies do that all the time. There’s a good chance that Belt returns to Fresno, hits the cover off the ball, and forces his name back into the conversation. If Huff isn’t hitting by, say, mid-June, what then? Would they recognize Huff as a sunk cost and move him to a part-time role? Or would they insist on playing him because of his contract? From an outsider’s perspective it’s easy to choose the former, but general managers have many additional factors to weigh.
Huff can make this question moot by picking up the pace. It’s quite possible that he does, even though we’ve seen him do the up-year, down-year thing before. That would certainly make things easier on the Giants, who could keep Belt in AAA to further suppress his service time, while actually having an excuse. But if Belt hits and Huff does not, they’ll be in quite a pickle. They can’t just trade Huff, as they did Bengie Molina last year when Buster Posey forced his way into the lineup. If Huff isn’t hitting no team would pick up that contract; even if he were hitting they probably wouldn’t get much in return.
The Giants are not in an enviable position right now. Sympathy runs low, because it is of their own creation. While optioning Belt now is a fairly easy decision, this isn’t the end of the situation. If Huff continues to struggle, as he has in the past, the Giants won’t have it so easy. Clearly, in that scenario, they should bring up Belt and let him take full-time reps at first. But for GMs situations are rarely as clear as they are to outsiders. Sabean’s decision in this matter, if it comes to that, will play a large role in his continuing evaluation as Giants’ GM.