Tagged: Brandon Belt

Spring Training: Day 1 Recap

By: Noah Frank

After a flight delay, a missed connection and a rental car line that looked more like the wait for an amusement park rollercoaster, I finally stumbled into Scottsdale Stadium unfashionably late. Of course, arriving in the bottom of the second inning of a Dodger game is pretty much par for the course, just not for the Giants.

The packed house of 12,081 (a new Scottsdale Stadium record, evidently) was fairly laid-back, coming to life only for home runs from Cody Ross and Pat Burrell, and a standing ovation as Brian Wilson entered the game to pitch a 1-2-3 sixth inning in relief. The Giants
ran out a starting nine very close to what they may well showcase against these
same Dodgers on Opening Day in a couple weeks:

scottsdale_berm.JPG

Torres CF
Sanchez 2B
Huff 1B
Posey C
Tejada SS
Burrell LF
Ross RF
DeRosa 3B
Ishikawa DH
Runzler LHP

Of course, there will be no DH, and Tim Lincecum will be toeing the rubber for the defending World Champs, but otherwise it looks pretty close.

By the seventh inning, however, that Opening Day lineup was all but departed from the field, leaving something that looks a lot like what Grizzlies fans will see at Chukchansi Park on April 7th. At that point, the Giants had Jackson Williams behind the plate, Brandon Belt at first, Emmanuel Burriss at second, Conor Gillaspie at third, Brandon Crawford at shortstop and Thomas Neal in left field. While that may be a projection into the future for Giants fans, it was very much a picture of the present for the Grizzlies.

Gillaspie made a nice play at the plate to gun down a runner trying to score from third on a ground ball, but later committed an error that opened the flood gates on reliever Javier Lopez, leading to a four-run inning for the Dodgers. Only one of the four runs was unearned, though, as the Dodgers turned a 6-3 deficit into a 7-6 advantage. But the Giants survived a double-play ball from Williams in the ninth and compiled a two-out, two-run rally to send the crowd home happy with an 8-7 win.

Hopefully I’ll get a closer look at our future Grizzlies today as the Giants take on Texas out in Surprise. I’ll also hopefully have some audio from Steve Decker (whoI ran into while checking in to the hotel) on his thoughts so far this spring and for the upcoming season.

(Photo: Scottsdale Stadium from behind the berm in right-center field)

Prospect Watch: Thomas Neal

Prospects have always been a hot topic during Spring Training and this year is no exception. Players like Brandon Belt, Zach Wheeler, Conor Gillaspie, and Darren Ford all ring a bell to any Giants lover. During this year’s Spring Training, much has been made about the Giants top prospect, Brandon Belt, but it wouldn’t hurt to keep an eye on outfielder Thomas Neal as well.
Neal has produced consistently strong Minor League numbers that have landed him in the top seven of Baseball America‘s Giants prospects list each of the last two years. Not only has he shown a good glove in the outfield, committing just 19 errors across his five-year minor league career, but he has also shown enough pop in his bat to be a potential big leaguer.

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In 2009, a then 21-year-old Neal put up break through numbers that shot him up the ranks of Giants prospects. He batted .337 (160-for-475) with 67 extra-base hits in 129 games with the San Jose Giants. He also belted 22 of those out of the park and polished off the season with 90 runs batted in. These outstanding numbers nabbed Neal the 2009 San Jose Giants MVP award.
He advanced to Double-A in 2010 with the Richmond Flying Squirrels, where he proceeded to post solid numbers yet again. He compiled a .291 batting average, also cleared the 40-double mark for the second straight year. His career minor league line of .296/.375/.475, has helped him rise steadily through the minor league ranks.
His overall performance in the minor league system eventually scored him a spot on the Giants 40-man roster in mid November. Neal is currently playing on Major League Spring Training with the Giants in Scottsdale, Arizona. He will more than likely end up in Fresno for the beginning of the season and has a possibility of making his Major League debut in San Francisco in 2011.
In addition to being a noted prospect, Neal has joined the Twitter trend that has exploded within the sports world recently. His username @TdaddyNeal is constantly being updated before and after (but hopefully not during) Spring Training games. Neal logs in daily to tweet about Spring Training, day-to-day life, random questions of the night and favorite quotes. He frequently interacts with fans through Twitter, which is always great for a technologically keyed-in Giants fan base.
His down-to-earth online persona has received positive attention, helping him attain a collection of over 2,200 followers, as of this article. Check into Yard Work in the near future to catch a full length interview with Thomas Neal, in the mean time feel free to start following @TdaddyNeal, as I do, for everyday updates from the prospect himself.
(Photo Credit: Real Life Studios)

Kindling The Hot Stove

By: Cody Turner

For many baseball fans, the excitement of the baseball
season doesn’t end after the World Series; it begins again. Following the
anticipation of the postseason awards, fans eagerly await the fate of some of
the key players from their organization, as well as what newcomers might become
significant contributors next spring. 

At the minor league level, while many spectators suspect a
vacant ghost town for a stadium, front office staffs across the country have
begun the diligent preparation for the six-month marathon of a season that lies
ahead. Similarly to fans, many members of the Minor League Baseball family
enthusiastically await offseason transactions, and how those moves affect which
exciting young talents they’ll get to feature come Opening Day.

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The most examined teams during the winter are often those
coming off postseason runs. The expectations of a defending champ are particularly
high, and the value of available top performers from such an organization is
increased. It’s always interesting to see how the chemistry of a championship
caliber team may be altered, especially a clubhouse that meshed as well as the
2010 World Series Champion San Francisco Giants.

In their first month since their World Series victory, a lot
has happened in the world of baseball. The activities thus far have had an
affect on multiple levels. What most don’t realize is how the re-signing of a
free agent, or loss of another, can change not just the outlook for a league or
a division, but also an entire organization from the top down.  While the elite of baseball’s top
prospects participated in the Arizona Fall League and the Giants focused on
some of their higher priority free agents in November, the fortune of the
Fresno Grizzlies’ 2011 Opening Day roster awaits.

Each time the Scottsdale Scorpions took the field in
Arizona, and every negotiation made in San Francisco shifted which developing
players Fresno fans were likely to see come April. With the young talents of
Brandon Belt, Charlie Culberson, and Conor Gillaspie making their cases for a
shot at the next level with an exceptional display of development in the AFL,
the eventual home of Giants free agents will play a crucial part where these
prospects land.  

By the end of Belt’s steady rise through the system in 2010–
culminating in the Scorpions’ AFL Championship— talks of the lefty starting the
upcoming season in San Francisco
began to surface. The small glimpse of the heaving-hitting
first baseman in Downtown Fresno at the tail end of last season left fans eager
to see the rising star lead the Grizzlies into 2011. Little did we know that
despite a championship lineup in San Francisco, Belt might end up with the
Giants without stepping foot in Chukchansi Park again.

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The immediate future of the Giants’ fifth-round selection of
the 2009 First-Year Player Draft was highly dependent on whether San Francisco
would sign Free Agent first baseman Aubrey Huff. Even after the news of the deal
that would keep Huff in orange and black
for two more seasons, the possibility
of Belt being a Giant this spring was not necessarily diminished.

Huff’s experience in the outfield, his willingness to do
whatever it takes
to help the team win, and his desire to be an everyday player
didn’t count out the possibility of Brandon Belt starting the 2011 season in a
Giants uniform. The Huff signing inched Belt closer to an assignment to Fresno,
but it wasn’t until San Francisco’s latest signing of Pat Burrell that made Belt’s
immediate future in a Grizzlies uniform seem more probable than that in a Giants
one. Nevertheless, the winter has just begun. How the next four months play out
will determine where we see Belt come Opening Day.

Similarly to the starting first base job, the rest of the
Giants infield is in question for the spring as well. The immediate decision-making
rested on the free agent status of World Series hero Juan Uribe. With the
sure-handed infielder headed to Southern California after signing with the
division-rival Dodgers
(and the Giants’ concern with the fitness of Pablo
Sandoval
), the opportunity for a young upstart from the minor league system
making an impact appeared as conceivable as ever.

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Whether the Giants looked to a more established player like
Emmanuel Burriss or Ryan Rohlinger to step up, or the fresher faces of a
Gillaspie, Culberson or a lesser-known Brandon Crawford to emerge, infield
opportunities were seemingly wide open. However, shortly after Uribe’s
departure, the Giants acquired veteran shortstop Miguel Tejada, who helped
boost San Diego in the divisional race last year.

While the return of Freddy Sanchez and Mark DeRosa to the
Giants infield, along with the attainment of Tejada and re-signing of backup
infielder Mike Fontenot will help fill some vacancies with some veteran
assurance, there are still some questions to be answered this winter. With the uncertainty of Sandoval and the increased progress and
productivity of Culberson and Gillaspie, each offseason move dramatically
impacts what baseball fans in the Central Valley can expect to see in Fresno.

The outlook for Triple-A baseball in Fresno seems bright
with the likelihood of some impressive young talent making their way though at
some point in 2011. As always though, the length at which they stay may vary.
With the recent immediate success of Rookie of the Year Buster Posey and lefty
hurler Madison Bumgarner, the urgency to see a Brandon Belt as a Giant sooner
rather than later will be astronomical.

(Ryan Rohlinger and Madison Bumgarner Photos: Don Davis; Aubrey Huff Photo: AP)

Legends Of The Fall

By: Noah Frank

The Arizona Fall League will wrap up this Saturday, as the Scottsdale Scorpions take on the Peoria Javelinas for the league title at 12pm PST on MLB Network. Most of the national media attention paid to the Scorpions when the roster was announced was to the Washington Nationals‘ uber-prospect, Bryce Harper. Now, if you know anything about the Giants prospects participating in the AFL, you may be asking yourself “Isn’t Scottsdale the Giants’ team?” The answer to that is simple: Yes, and no.

See, this is how the AFL works. The prospects from the 30 Major League teams are divided up into six, five-team squads. The Giants are grouped with the Colorado Rockies, Baltimore Orioles, Arizona Diamondbacks and, as mentioned before, the Nationals. San Francisco has a total of seven prospects on the roster, none of them with the same kind of branding as baseball’s answer to LeBron James. But while Harper has certainly helped, living up to the hype so far (in a very small sample size), it has been the trio of Giants hitters that have keyed Scottsdale’s run to the championship game.

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Past features of our Prospect Watch series Charlie Culberson and Brandon Belt share the league lead in doubles (11) and triples (5), respectively, earning them some national attention. Meanwhile, Conor Gillaspie has had his best showing as a professional to date, batting over .300 while sharing the league lead in home runs (5). Belt’s line, though, has been the most eye-catching so far at .372/.427/.616 (AVG, OBP, SLG), as he tries to put a cherry on top of his magnificent 2010 campaign with another championship.

The Giants have stocked the team with a few arms as well, lending 2009 Grizzly Dan Runzler and 2010 Grizzly Joe Paterson as well as lower level prospects Jason Stoffel and Ryan Verdugo (interestingly, all but Stoffel are southpaws). This is just the beginning of a whole new campaign for Runzler who, after making the Majors in ’09, was injured this season and may now being groomed for a move into the starting rotation. With the starting five in San Francisco as stable as any in the Majors, it would not be a surprise to see Runzler begin 2011 back in Fresno as he adjusts to his new role. Paterson is likely to return as well, and Grizzlies fans may get a look at Verdugo, who struck out 94 batters in just 62.2 innings while going 8-1 with a 1.87 ERA this season between Augusta and San Jose.

While the AFL is a great way for Giants fans to get a sneak preview of the players that will end up in San Francisco in a couple years, it’s an even better way to see those who will be in Fresno next year. So check out the game on MLB Network at noon on Saturday. It’s your last chance to see some of this top talent until Grizzlies Opening Day on Thursday, April 7th, 2011.

(Photo of Brandon Belt courtesy of Joe Pun/AZGiants.com)

Prospect Watch: Charlie Culberson

By: Noah Frank

Every year,
as the bulk of the baseball watching populous turns its collective attention to
the playoffs– culminating in the Fall Classic– a handful of experts pack their
bags and head to Arizona. No, they are not flying south for the winter, though
the mild temperatures are certainly the reason that their destination is
situated where it is. These scouts and writers are headed to the Arizona Fall League, a post-season
prospect showcase of the best the minors has to offer. At first glance, this
was not somewhere one would expect to find Charlie
Culberson
.

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Not only was
Culberson not among the top 30 prospects in the Giants’ system entering 2010,
according to Baseball America, he wasn’t even listed on the organizational
depth chart at second base, making his only appearance in their prospect
handbook as the fourth-string third baseman.

It’s funny
how quickly a professional baseball player can put his name on the map these
days. Let’s just say that whole anonymity thing isn’t going to last into next
year’s edition.

A career
.249 hitter with just a .312 on-base percentage through his first three
professional seasons, Culberson– still just 21– spent the year at High-A San Jose. After a lackluster April that
saw him hit just .212, he stormed out to bat .326 in May and a cool .400 in the
month of June. His overall average reached a season-high of .329 in late June,
but would tumble downwards in the second half, coinciding with the promotion of
top prospect and fellow right-side infielder Brandon Belt to Double-A Richmond.

Culberson
still finished the year at .290/.340/.457 with 28 doubles and 16 home runs, his
best season yet as a professional. The Giants liked what they saw enough to
give him a shot in the AFL, a talent-rich prospect zoo where he would be thoroughly
tested.

Even with
his improvements this year, nobody could have expected what Culberson
delivered. He hit safely in his first dozen games, batting .472 (25-for-53)
with eight doubles, two triples, two home runs, 15 runs scored and nine RBI. He
racked up eight multi-hit games over that stretch, including four of three or
more hits. As of November 5th he had settled down to a .417 average,
but still leads the league in hits (30), doubles (10), and extra-base hits
(14), while ranking second in slugging percentage (.694) and total bases (50).
Never mind that he’s doing all of this against the best competition available.

Culberson
may still have Brock Bond above him
on the organizational depth chart at second base, but he has likely passed Nick Noonan and may well see some time
in Fresno this year. A sandwich pick out of high school back in 2007, it has
taken Culberson a little while to achieve his potential. But with Belt flanking
him at first base, the Giants have a lot to be excited about in the future of
the right side of the infield.

(Photo Credit: Mills Fitzner)

Smaller Stadium, Enhanced Experience

For many natives of Fresno, it comes as quite a shock when they meet people who relocate to the Central Valley from preconceived “nicer” areas. Speaking from the perspective of a Bay Area boy, my response to many when they initially find out where it is I’m originally from is simple: “Fresno has its advantages”. 
As a young adult fresh out of high school, I was eager to take on the responsibilities and freedom that came with leaving the nest. Luckily for me, I was drawn to Fresno through opportunities of higher education. Little did I know that after just over six years in what I now consider home, there would be so many positives to outweigh any disadvantages.
Growing up, baseball was always top of mind. At first thought, moving three hours east to the Valley was only going to put distance between myself and the sport and teams I lived for growing up. With more consideration, the travel was actually going to be more of a baseball blessing than a letdown. 
Like most people in Fresno I was ecstatic at the thought of being able to watch young talented ballplayers before they advanced to the Majors, but took for granted how fortunate I really was. To this day I kick myself for not catching every game in April of 2007. After seeing the career that young Tim Lincecum has put together thus far from the comfort of my unenthusiastic living room, I can only imagine what Chukchansi Park was like as the dominant right hander mowed down opposing hitters in the PCL.
Following the first of back-to-back Cy Young Awards for Big Time Timmy Jim in 2008, I was certain I wouldn’t let another opportunity like that come through Fresno without being a part of it. Even though the circumstances were dramatically in my favor, I made sure I soaked up every bit of the Giants’ most recent highly anticipated prospects to come through Fresno. With Buster Posey breaking into Triple-A midway through the 2009 season, and starting the 2010 season with Madison Bumgarner, we were showered with the gift of future standouts in our own backyard.
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What some people don’t realize is hat there are always other chances to see future household names, even before they show signs of stardom. A prime example from my experience in Downtown Fresno is the rise of Brian Wilson. After seeing Wilson grind through three seasons with the Grizzlies, he suddenly compiled a record-setting number of saves in San Francisco in the same amount of time he spent in Fresno. While he was just another arm in the bullpen for the Grizzlies from ’05-’07, now he’s captured the attention of millions who “Fear the Beard“.
Although it’s been recognized by some, there are still way too many Fresnans who are unaware of just how much connection the Central Valley had to the 2010 World Series. Not only did the Giants fill a 25-man roster with 15 players who wore a Grizzlies jersey at some point in there career, they were led to a Championship title by a majority of former Fresno Grizzlies.
There still may be several folks who will ask the clueless, “Wait, Matt Cain played in Fresno?” or “Buster Posey was here for two months this season?” questions. However, it would be my guess that the San Francisco Giants’ remarkable run to a World Championship, which sparked an incredible support from communities throughout Northern California, will be many peoples’ equivalent to the Tim Lincecum experience I had just a few short seasons ago. 
Whether a fan of baseball, an admirer of professional athletes, or just someone who wants to be a part of something special, the lesson here is simply not to let the future Giants like Brandon Belt, Darren Ford and Zack Wheeler breeze through Fresno without the chance to watch them play. Staying informed and involved will enhance the big league experiences you’ll encounter down the road.

Prospect Watch: Brandon Belt


Ed. Note: This will be the first of (hopefully) many looks into possible members of the 2011 Grizzlies squad. Even with the graduation of Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner, there is still plenty of talent left in the Giants system. The man in the early running for top talent heading into next year? Brandon Belt.

You will
have to forgive him, but this is all a bit new to Brandon Belt. While the
22-year-old has always been a solid player with a good swing, he is suddenly
being touted as the next great Giants prospect, flying up the ranks of the
minor leagues. In just his first professional season, he arrived in Fresno and was
placed in the middle of the lineup of a team fighting for a postseason spot.
While that might be overwhelming for some players just three years removed from
high school, the even-keeled Belt seems up to the challenge.

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In his
second at-bat in a Grizzlies uniform, against division-rival Sacramento, on the
road, Belt torched a searing line drive to one of the deepest parts of the park
for a solo home run. He would go on to walk three times in the game as well,
scoring three of Fresno’s five total runs.

Just how
Brandon Belt found himself at Raley Field last week is something of a surprise.
The former Texas Longhorn put up solid, if unspectacular, numbers in his two
seasons of Division I ball after transferring from San Jacinto College in
Houston. He had decided not to sign after being selected by the Boston Red Sox out
of high school in the 11th round in 2006, and again passed on an 11th
round selection– this time by Atlanta– in 2007. After his two years at Texas,
the Giants made him a fifth-round selection last year.

Belt did not
log any game time in 2009 after signing, but he did go to minor league
instructional camp, where Giants coaches made a couple of adjustments to his
swing, raising his hands and opening his stance a bit.

“It seems
minor, but it takes time to adjust,” he says of the mechanical changes. “I
worked on it all off-season, so I felt like I was ready once this year started.”

That
certainly showed in his numbers. After batting .383 with a .492 on-base
percentage, 28 doubles, four triples, 10 home runs and 62 RBI in just 77 games
with High-A San Jose, Belt moved up to the pitcher-friendly Eastern League.
There, with Double-A Richmond, he posted a .337 average with 11 doubles, six
triples, nine homers and 40 RBI in just 46 games. That gave him 68 extra-base
hits between the two levels, over which he also stole 20 bases. Belt’s home run
in his first game with Fresno made him just the second player in the minor
leagues this year with 20 doubles, steals and home runs.

Not bad for
a rookie. But perhaps the most impressive part of Belt’s success has been his
ability to hold up all summer. He acknowledges that the hardest part of
adjusting to professional ball has been the length of the season, which
includes more than twice as many games as a college schedule.

“Mentally it
took a while to get prepared for,” he explains. “And now the physical fatigue
starts to set in at the end of the season.”

Although
that season will not include a Major League call-up just yet, it will last a
little longer for Belt, who is due to report to the prospect showcase known as
the Arizona Fall League in a few weeks. With what he’s accomplished this year,
his 2011 season will be looked at under a magnifying glass, by everyone from the
front office in San Francisco to the television analysts at ESPN and writers at
Baseball America. But Belt isn’t
about to put too much pressure on himself.

“I’m not
saying I won’t have goals,” he explains. “I just understand how the game is,
that good and bad things happen. I’m just trying to be as consistently good as
I can be throughout the season.”

The way
things have gone, his next season may well start right here in Fresno.