Melky Cabrera’s offensive production seemed impossible to replace as news broke in August that he had tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. With 159 hits, 84 runs and a .907 OPS sucked out of the order, the Giants looked incapable of keeping pace with the Los Angeles Dodgers, who held a one-game lead in the National League West.
Of course, Bruce Bochy’s club, which returns to town tonight for the exhibition Bay Bridge Series, went on to win the World Series thanks to the timely contributions of several unexpected heroes.
But as Opening Day 2013 approaches, the Giants still haven’t picked up a bat with the “Melk-man’s” punch, and it might not matter because they have a stick at first base that’s ready to be unleashed.
As spring training wraps up, every indication suggests that the “Baby Giraffe” is ready to break out of his cage this year.
Brandon Belt probably won’t ever live up to his billing as “the next Buster Posey,” but he should become a dependable run producer in the middle of the order.
The first sign is the way Belt knocked the cover off the ball in the Cactus League. He led San Francisco in batting average (.448), home runs (8), RBIs (19), slugging percentage (.925) and OPS (1.397). Skeptics will remind you that he put up healthy numbers in spring training last year (.308/.608/1.028), but the case for Belt extends beyond the Arizona desert.
While Posey comparisons are unfair, Belt was tagged with the label for a reason: he tore through the minors in one season (2010), hitting a combined .352 at Class A, AA and AAA, after batting .321 with 14 home runs and 108 RBIs in 124 career games at the University of Texas.
But Belt’s debut at age 22 on Opening Day 2011 might have been premature. He struggled through his rookie campaign, hitting .225 in 187 at-bats. During a 4-for-47 stretch last July, many questioned whether he was truly big-league material.
Belt hit bottom on July 22 when he admitted to reporters that he was struggling mentally and Bochy replaced him with Pablo Sandoval at first base the next game. But Belt jumped back in the lineup a few days later after Panda strained his hamstring and he found his stroke, hitting .333 in the last two months of the season.
The experience should help Belt reach his potential this year. It taught him the value of taking extra cuts in the cage and how to get out of his head when he’s struggling, and to approach his at-bats with his teammates in mind rather than wallowing in his own insecurities.
Most importantly, he’s been through it now, so when he hits the skids, he knows how to claw his way out without getting sucked into the quicksand.
It’s easy to forget that Belt’s 25th birthday is still 23 days away. He’s just starting to grow into his cleats.
The big Texan isn’t Posey, and he probably isn’t going to put up those Melky numbers, either. But he should give the lineup the pop it needs this year without having to trade the farm for a big bat in July.
Paul Gackle is a columnist for The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at pgackle@?sfexaminer.com and followed on Twitter @GackleReport.