Aaron Rowand

If Brandon Belt’s ready, who gets pushed aside?

Their 2011 power potential is unlike anything the San Francisco Giants have looked forward to since their 3-4-5 went by the names of Jeff Kent, Barry Bonds and Ellis Burks. Brandon Belt is already a good enough hitter to be an above average first baseman or corner outfielder. Now the Giants have to decide if they’re ready to part with a couple 1B/OF guys who in some cases are much older and bring home much more bacon.

I was pretty sure up until this week that the Giants were going to play it safe with Belt, who’s a triple away from the cycle against the White Sox as I write this. Then, through Tim Kawakami, Brian Sabean sent a warning shot to guys like Aaron Rowand, Travis Ishikawa, Nate Schierholtz and anybody else hoping to grab one of the remaining spots on the bench.

-Q: So has Belt exceeded expectations this spring?

-SABEAN: I think he’s surprised all of us. He started off slow, got locked in, got a little bit funky and then came back out of it.

He’s played extremely well at first. And at the plate, he doesn’t look like he’s overmatched. Started enough games that we’ve seen him against, quote, major-league pitching.

To compare his talent to the players down here in the Cactus League, he’s certainly got everybody talking inside and outside the organization as a guy who looks like he could be ready.

So much for the Buster Posey treatment, perhaps. Since he doesn’t cause Sabean to have the same hesitations caused by Posey’s supposed inexperience behind the plate, service time may not be an issue. And that’s the right move. If keeping Belt on the team from the very beginning would increase the Giants’ wins from 92 to 94 or 95, don’t you have to do that? The Giants would certainly recoup any of the extra money they’d spend on Belt in a few years if they’re a World Series contender up until then and maybe beyond.

Say the Giants decide Belt needs to be on the team and bat seventh. It seems like a given that the 25-man will include 12 pitchers, so which position players would make the squad and who would be let go?

Buster Posey, Eli Whiteside, Aubrey Huff, Freddy Sanchez, Miguel Tejada, Pablo Sandoval, Mike Fontenot, Mark DeRosa, Andres Torres and Cody Ross would clearly be included in any roster permutations, which along with Belt adds up to 11 position players. So two spots are available for Pat Burrell, Aaron Rowand, Nate Schierholtz, Travis Ishikawa, Emmanuel Burriss, Darren Ford and Ryan Rohlinger. We can remove Rohlinger, Ford and Burriss from the equation, especially since Sabean made a point to comment on Fontenot’s capable play at shortstop. It would be nice to have a speedy guy on the bench and/or a plus defender who can handle both middle infield spots, but those luxuries are lower on the list than dingers, knowing Sabean’s the one making the final decision.

So it’s Pat the Bat, Mr. Sunk Cost, JuggerNate and that dude with the goatee who drawed the walk that might have saved the Giants in the NLDS.

Pat Burrell

Pros: Proven power hitter; given tons of credit last season for preparing the Giants for the stressful world of postseason baseball; takes more pitches than the average Giant; hates the DH; leather fetishist.

Cons: Streakier than J.R. Smith (of the Nuggets, for the hoops-ignorant); probably should be in favor of the DH, considering his range.

Aaron Rowand

Pros: Salary makes him tough to release; experienced CF; gritty gamertude togetherness exuded 24/7.

Cons: Isn’t really interested in playing a corner outfield position; slipping defensively; .230/.281/.378 line last year.

Nate Schierholtz

Pros: Best OF arm on the team (by far); just turned 27; healthy after a major shoulder injury last year that he probably shouldn’t have played through; he’d be the 2nd-fastest Giant on the roster behind Torres; currently having the best Spring of the four players we’re comparing (.342/.375/.526 after going 3-for-5 today).

Cons: Decent minor league power hasn’t translated to the Majors.

Travis Ishikawa

Pros: Higher BB% than Rowand or Schierholtz; very good defensive 1B; can play a corner OF spot if necessary.

Cons: Became somewhat marginalized last year (only 173 PA in 2010); kind of slow considering his power numbers haven’t been that great; if Belt’s on the team, the need for a defensive replacement at 1B goes away.

If Belt does make the Opening Day roster, before the last two spots are filled the only left-handed bat on the bench is Fontenot (if Sandoval starts). Due to his speed, defensive skills and the fact he’s a lefty, one of these spots has to go to Schierholtz. Letting Schierholtz go to another team should also frighten the Giants, since the potential of a healthy Schierholtz going somewhere else and putting up a 15/15 season with great defense is a distinct possibility in a full-time role.

That pretty much means bye-bye Ishikawa, which leaves the Giants with the question of which veteran right-handed outfielder to carry. Rowand’s a better fielder, but is he better enough to make that much of a difference? At this point either Ross or Schierholtz would probably be just as good in CF and certainly would be superior in RF or LF. Then there’s the cash involved, with Burrell only slated to make $1MM and Rowand earning somewhere between $20MM and $90BZ (bazillion) in the next two years.

To those wondering if the Giants can trade Rowand to another team, here’s the question: even if the Giants were offering to pick up all but $4MM or so of Rowand’s remaining salary, if you were an opposing team and knew the Giants were trying to pawn off spare outfielders, wouldn’t you ask for Schierholtz? Rowand is a below average player, and he will be for the rest of his career regardless of how many times he changes his awkward batting stance.

Going back to Burrell vs. Rowand, I’d make the decision based on who you’d want coming up to the plate in the late innings as a pinch hitter. The answer to that is clearly Burrell, but will the Giants ask that question? They may have to if they decide Belt’s ready for a starting role in April, which looks increasingly likely.

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