Thursday, May 26, 2011

Can the Brandons Spark the Giants in Buster's Absence?

It took me a while to write this. Not because of research or anything like that, but simply because I was so steamed about the Buster Posey injury from last night. I'm kind of going through the seven stages of grief right now, and if anything, I'm probably just past the anger stage. That's how tough this day has been and how hard I've taken this Posey setback (much like most of Giants nation).

That being said, Posey is out for an extended period of time (most likely the year), and the Giants will have to make it through. I'll have a profile on catcher Chris Stewart at some point, but the real story of the day other than Posey's injury is the callups of Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford (other minor news was Ryan Rohlinger and Henry Sosa being designated for assignment to make room for Crawford and Stewart; Sosa was No. 26 in my list). Belt was an expected callup, simply because he was hitting very well in Fresno, but the Crawford promotion comes as a surprise. After all, he started the season on the disabled list, and while he was putting up good numbers in San Jose, it was only High Single-A. I figured it was more of a rehab stint before he got the eventual callup to Fresno (where he was expected to start the year prior to injury). However, with Mike Fontenot joining Posey and Darren Ford on the disabled list, the need for depth in the middle infield was huge, and the Giants made the decision to call up Crawford along with Belt and Stewart.

In terms of Belt, the promotion was obvious: the Giants desperately need offense, and Belt has been hitting well in Fresno. The Giants managed to garner only three hits today against Anibal Sanchez, and Aubrery Huff and Cody Ross haven't exactly lit it up with the Giants this year. Belt showed some nice strides in Fresno. In 31 games and 132 plate appearance, Belt hit .337 with a .994 OPS and added four home runs and 21 RBI in his tenure with the Grizzlies. The strongest aspect of Belt's game in Fresno was his strong ability to draw a walk and get on base, as he posted an OBP of .470 and had a BB/K ratio of 0.87. Additionally, Belt showed some versatility with the Grizzlies, as he played left and right field and first base, with a majority of his playing time coming in the outfield (he played 26 games total in the outfield). Thus, he brings a lot of utility defensively, which is good since it was obvious in the beginning of the year that Huff was probably more suited for first base only.

Belt though was far from perfect in Fresno. He struck out 31 times, a 30.6 percent rate. Furthermore, his contact rate wasn't very impressive at 69 percent (you read that right). While Belt wasn't overpowered or overwhelmed by the Pacific Coast League pitching, it was obvious that his plate patience was his worst enemy at times. Belt seemed to be almost too selective, and he ended up helping pitchers by getting behind in counts early and often in many of his at-bats. Now, I don't think Belt will be a 69 percent contact hitter in the Majors. In his short tenure with the Giants earlier this year, he posted a contact rate of 77.7, so his low contact rate may have just been a stretch where he was figuring out the pitching and what he could hit for power and what he could lay off of. Nonetheless, Belt probably needs to show more aggressiveness at the dish this time around in the Majors, for he is needed to spark this Giants offense, and MLB pitchers won't make as many mistakes as PCL hurlers.

Another issue for Belt is the decrease in power from a year ago. After posting slugging percentages of .623 in Richmond and .563 in Fresno a season ago, Belt's slugging dipped to .525 this year. Also his ISO fell to .188 with the Grizzlies, the first time it had ever been under the .200 mark in his minor league career. Still though, Belt does offer a lot of offensive upside, even with the power numbers down, and if you look at his competition, Belt doesn't need to be incredible offensively (Huff has a slugging of .337 and Ross has a slugging of .378). If he can be in the mid-to-high .700 (or even low .800) range in terms of OPS for the remainder of the year in San Francisco, and if he can continue to display his solid eye at the plate (he did produce a BB/K ratio of 0.62 in the Majors this year), then Belt certainly will be a boost to this inconsistent Giants offense (and it is possible in my opinion, as his Major League Equivalent from a year ago produced an OPS of .896).

As for Crawford, he is coming off a very promising stint in San Jose this season, as he .312 with a 1.005 OPS. He also added three home runs and 15 RBI, and looked very much like the hitter he was two years earlier in the California League. That being said, the California League is the California League, and considering Crawford spent the past two years in Double-A Richmond, it shouldn't be surprising to anyone that he hit as well as he did in in San Jose.

The big question for Crawford will be how he will adjust in the Majors after relatively struggling in the Eastern League the past two years. His Major League Equivalent from a year ago produced a .226 average, a .303 OBP, a .347 slugging, a .650 OPS, a contact rate of 77 percent and a BB/K ratio of 0.47. Those numbers aren't exactly on par with what Giants fans saw from Crawford this year in San Jose. Nonetheless, Crawford may be okay if he can post those numbers this year, or perhaps perform slightly above. Crawford is a solid defender who has gotten good reports from scouts and the Giants brass. An OPS in the .700 range would be a luxury for this Giants team considering his defense, and even an OPS in the mid .600 range would be tolerable. After all, he hasn't played beyond Double-A, so there is going to be a learning period for Crawford at the plate, and the Giants management and fans need to be patient as he develops.

The big issue with Crawford is his plate discipline, as he has had a tendency to strike out a lot and not draw a lot of walks to boot. In 2009, he posted BB/K ratios of 0.31 and 0.20 in San Jose and Connecticut, respectively. Last year, his BB/K ratio improved to 0.51 in Richmond, but he still struck out 26.5 percent of the time, which is uncomfortably high. This year in San Jose, he struck out 22 percent of the time, so even despite the low level for his age, he continued to have issues in terms of making contact at the plate. However, his 0.69 BB/K ratio was the best number in his minor league career, and one can hope that Crawford can transition that confidence and approach to the Majors this year.

Crawford may have been called up prematurely because of the dire need for depth in the Giants infield with Fontenot and Pablo Sandoval on the DL. That being said, this stint with the Giants will be very telling for Crawford. If he can hold his own somewhat, it'll give the Giants even more incentive to hand him the starting position next year. If not, then one could see the Giants management panic and look to deal for Jose Reyes, which would cost the Giants a lot of money in addition to some valuable prospects. I'm not expecting the world from Crawford in this callup. But if he can be a replacement-level player offensively, he could be of some value to this Giants roster because he still has room to grow and develop as a player, and he's an obvious upgrade over Miguel Tejada defensively at shortstop.

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