Brandon Belt Should Stay In The Minors

With Opening Day less than a week away, the San Francisco Giants still have a few things to decide before finalizing their roster: Who will close while Brian Wilson recovers from an oblique strain? Does Aaron Rowand deserve another chance to try and earn his inflated salary? And, most importantly, what should they do with top prospect Brandon Belt?

The left-handed slugging first baseman — and sometimes outfielder — demolished minor league pitching last year, climbing from Class A all the way to Triple-A and hitting at every stop along the way. He capped his season with a monstrous showing in the Arizona Fall League and has continued to impress with his advanced hitting skills during spring training. Despite having only one professional season of experience, it appears that Belt has little left to learn in the minors.

However, the decision on whether or not he should break camp with the big league team is more complicated than simply determining whether he’s good enough to handle major league pitching right now. The question the Giants need to answer is whether Belt’s potential production in the first two months of the season might outweigh the escalating costs they would face down the line. Based on some projections and historical comparisons, we can help them with the calculations.

Let’s start with Belt’s estimated production. Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projects his season line at .266/.357/.440, suggesting he’d immediately become the Giants’ fourth-best hitter if inserted into the lineup on Opening Day. Even with his defensive limitations (or Aubrey Huff‘s, depending on who they moved to get his bat in the lineup), he’s likely a better player than Pat Burrell is right now. And, with Cody Ross set to begin the season on the disabled list, the Giants have the opportunity to give Belt regular playing time out of the gate.

However, the marginal improvement from adding Belt (or Huff) to the outfield rotation on Day 1 may not be as large as you might think. If we just focus on April and May — Belt will almost certainly be up in early June regardless of what they decide to do next week — the Giants have about 600 at-bats to distribute between first base, left field and right field. Below are the projected performances with and without Belt:

Huff, Burrell, Ross, Nate Schierholtz, Mark DeRosa: .265/.335/.445
Huff, Belt, Ross, Burrell, DeRosa: .265/.343/.446

Shifting some playing time from Schierholtz and Burrell to Belt represents an upgrade, but not a significant one — the difference in those two lines is only worth about five runs. A five-run improvement equates to an expectation of about half a win difference in terms of projected finish. Of course, given that the Giants could very well be in a dogfight for the National League West crown, the prospect of potentially adding even just one win to their final record is quite valuable.

Based upon research by Nate Silver in Baseball Between The Numbers, the revenue generated by a win for a team in playoff contention was close to $2.5 million in 2006 — economic inflation since then likely pushes the total to more than $3 million now. If having Belt on the roster in April and May added half of a win to their expected total, that performance could be worth between $1 million and $2 million in revenue that the Giants wouldn’t otherwise get if he spent the first two months in Triple-A.

However, when we look at the long-term cost differences related to the amount of service time Belt accrues this year, $1 million to $2 million quickly begins to look like pocket change. If he were to spend at least 172 days on the active roster this season, he’d be on target for free agency after the 2016 season. If the Giants hold him down for just three weeks, they’ll push his ability to hit the open market back by a full year, gaining the rights to his services for the 2017 season that they otherwise would not have. The additional value of having Belt under contract for an additional year — in what should be the prime of his career — is worth far more than $1 million or $2 million in potential revenue in 2011.

The bigger question is whether the Giants should choose to leave Belt in Triple-A until early June in order to prevent him from reaching “Super Two” status. While most players do not become eligible for salary arbitration until after they have accrued three years of service time, the top 16 percent of players with two-plus years of service are granted arbitration a year early and end up going through it four times rather than the usual three.

To see the impact this can have on a player’s salary, here are two relatively comparable players, one whom was awarded Super Two status and one who was not.

Hunter Pence (Super Two)
2007 — $380,000
2008 — $396,000
2009 — $439,000
2010 — $3.5 million
2011 — $6.9 million
Total: $11.6 million

Yunel Escobar (not Super Two)
2007 — $380,000
2008 — $402,500
2009 — $425,000
2010 — $435,000
2011 — $2.9 million
Total: $4.5 million

By achieving arbitration a year earlier and using escalating raises to increase his salaries as he goes through the process, Pence has already earned an addition $7 million in salary, and will likely continue to outpace Escobar significantly going forward. By the time they reach free agency after the 2013 season, the difference in career earnings could be as high as $15 million.

The Giants know these numbers and they are well aware of the fact there are significant cost savings to be gained from leaving Belt in the minor leagues for two months. (Remember, they faced a similar dilemma with Buster Posey last year, and chose to keep him in the minors to begin the year.) Given the fact they have viable alternatives at first base and in the outfield, it is tough to argue that the benefits of having Belt on the roster for April and May justify the long-term costs associated with granting him Super Two status, much less allowing him to reach free agency a year earlier.

When it comes to promoting young players who aren’t demonstrably better than what you already have on the roster, patience really is a virtue.

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Dave is a co-founder of and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

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