Prospect Smackdown: Brandon Belt vs. Freddie Freeman
The three best first base prospects in baseball right now are Eric Hosmer of the Kansas City Royals, Freddie Freeman of the Atlanta Braves, and Brandon Belt of the San Francisco Giants. The least-known of the trio entering 2010 was Belt, who came out of (seemingly) nowhere with a monstrous '10 campaign. Let's do a Prospect Smackdown between Belt and Freeman.
Background and Intangibles
Belt: Brandon Belt was primarily known as a pitching prospect growing up in Texas and was drafted in the 11th round by the Red Sox in 2006. He went to junior college at San Jacinto, where he emerged as a hitting prospect and was drafted again in the 11th round, this time by the Braves in '07. He passed that up and went to the University of Texas, playing for two seasons and doing enough to earn a fifth round spot in the '09 draft with the Giants. He was solid but not spectacular in college, but last year he tore through the minor leagues, destroying the California and Eastern Leagues and holding his own in Triple-A. He's now one of the elite offensive prospects in baseball. His work ethic and makeup are considered excellent.
Freeman: Freddie Freeman was well-known to scouts on the California high school circuit, earning a spot in the second round of the 2007 draft by the Braves. He pitched a lot in high school and many teams liked him better on the mound, but the Braves preferred his bat. His rookie ball debut was mediocre, but he took a big step forward in '08, hitting .316 with 18 homers in Low-A at the age of 18. A wrist injury hampered him in '09, but in '10 he blasted Triple-A International League pitching with a .319/.378/.521 mark, posting an impressive +22 percent OPS at age 20, leading the league in base hits and total bases. He is very mature for his age and scouts like his makeup.
Advantage: Both players were pitching prospects in high school but preferred hitting. Belt went the college route and Freeman got into pro ball first, but both moved very rapidly through their respective farm systems. Both have good makeup. This seems even to me.
Physicality, Health, and Tools
Belt: Belt is a 6-5, 210 pound left-handed hitter and thrower, born April 20, 1988. Although physically large, he is a good athlete with average speed. He's very aggressive on the bases and will swipe more bags than the average first baseman, is an excellent defender, and runs well enough to see time in the outfield, where his arm is playable. Belt is physically strong, but scouts weren't sure his college swing would work in the pros and that he could get tired up inside too often. The Giants made some adjustments to his stance last year, opening it up, and the results were outstanding. He's always had good plate discipline and doesn't strike out excessively for a power hitter.
Freeman: Freeman is a 6-5, 220 pound left-handed hitter and right-handed thrower, born September 12, 1989. He is a decent athlete, with average speed but smooth moves around the bag at first base. He doesn't run quite as well Belt and wouldn't fit as readily in the corner outfield, although he has a stronger throwing arm. His swing is well-regarded, simple and generating power to all fields. He doesn't strike out much for a power hitter and shows decent knowledge of the strike zone, but is rather aggressive and not a walk machine.
Advantage: They are the same height. Freeman carries a bit more size on his frame and is a tick slower, but also has a stronger arm than Belt. Both will be above average defensive players at first base, though Belt could play some outfield when young. Both feature above average, though not spectacular power. Both have good knowledge of the strike zone, though Freeman is more aggressive and less willing to wait for walks. I think Belt is a slightly better athlete, but Freeman is a year and a half younger, which is a major advantage in terms of future skill growth projection. Overall this balances out as even.
Belt: Belt began 2010 with San Jose in the High-A California League, his first professional assignment since he signed too late to play in '09. He annihilated Cal League pitching with a .383/.492/.628 mark in 77 games, including 58 walks and just 50 strikeouts in 269 at-bats. He even stole 18 bases in 25 attempts. Promoted to Double-A Richmond, he remained unstoppable with a .337/.413/.623 mark in 46 games, retaining his power and plate discipline in a much more difficult park/league context. A late promotion to Triple-A resulted in a .229/.393/.563 mark for Fresno; the batting average was low, but that looked like a BABIP fluke, given that he retained power and strong plate discipline. His composite line on the year was .352/.455/.620 with 93 walks, 99 strikeouts, and 22 steals in 30 attempts; 43 doubles and 10 triples were included. He then hit .372/.427/.616 in the Arizona Fall League. There were no statistical flaws that I can see in his performance.
Freeman: Freeman spent the entire minor league season in Triple-A ,hitting .319/.378/.521 with 35 doubles, 18 homers, 43 walks, and 84 strikeouts in 461 at-bats for Richmond. Promoted to the majors for September, he went 4-for-24 (.167), but two of his hits were for extra bases, including a home run against Roy Halladay. Considering that he was a 20-year-old hitting in Triple-A, his season was excellent. He went just 2-for-16 in the Arizona Fall League, but both hits were for extra bases and of course the sample is miniscule.
Advantage: Both players had very strong seasons, although it is hard to compare them directly since they played (for the most part) at different levels. Belt was certainly more dominant on the surface, leading the entire minor leagues in OPS, but he was also playing against less difficult competition in High-A and Double-A, and is a year and a half older than Freeman. But check this out: Freeman's .898 OPS in Triple-A was 22 percent better than International League context. Belt's .956 OPS in Triple-A was 22 percent better than Pacific Coast League context. In other words, their Triple-A numbers were virtually the same in OPS terms, although given that Belt's sample size was just 13 games, we can't take assume that would hold up over a full season. This is another very close call but I'll give a slight edge to Belt considering how amazing his season was in aggregate.
Belt: Belt's MLE for 2010 was about .280/.360/.520. Scouts project he should hit .270-.290 in the majors, with at least 20 homer power and a high walk rate and strong defense. He turns 23 in April, and assuming a standard growth curve he has the ability to be an above-average producer at first base at worst, and very possibly an All-Star, assuming he stays with the swing and approach he used this year.
Freeman: Freeman's MLE for 2010 was about .290/.340/.460. Scouts project that he should hit .270-.290 in the majors, with at least 20 homer power and strong defense. Unless his walk rate spikes, his OPB will be rather dependent on his batting average. He will play 2011 at age 21 and doesn't turn 22 until the middle of September. He projects as an above-average first baseman, with All-Star potential down the line if he maximizes his potenital.
Advantage: They project as similar players at this point. Belt should draw more walks and have an OBP less dependent on batting average, but Freeman is younger and has more room to improve on the age curve, assuming of course that his development curve is typical, which it may not be.
Very close, like all good smackdowns. I rate them as even on background and intangibles, even on tools, Belt with a very slight edge on current performance, and Freeman a tiny edge on future projection due to his youth. This is really close.
In my 2011 book, I gave them both Grade A- ratings, with Freeman just slightly ahead on the Top 50 list because he is younger. I expect both of these guys will be around for a long, long time.