Brandon Belt

Major League Baseball’s GM meetings take place next week in Orlando, Florida. On Dec. 9, the annual Winter Meetings will kick off in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. These next few weeks are some of the craziest in the baseball year. There is expected to be a flurry of free agent signings almost immediately. The landscape of the league figures to look quite different by Opening Day 2014. Here are three former Texas Longhorn players who are currently free agents.

JP Howell—Relief Pitcher
2013 team: Los Angeles Dodgers
Previous contract: One year $2.85 million guaranteed, with $1.75 million in potential incentives

Howell is coming off an excellent 2013 season in Los Angeles. The 30-year-old southpaw posted a 2.03 earned run average in 62 innings. In those innings, he surrendered just 42 hits and featured a solid 2.35 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He’s a lefty specialist, and there isn’t a team in the majors that couldn’t use one. He doesn’t have plus velocity—he generally hits about 87 to 90 mph on his fastball—but this can really sneak up on hitters because he does have a dazzling off-speed repertoire. He is looking for a multi-year deal, and I think he gets it for around 4 to 6 million dollars per year. It’s likely the Dodgers, with their limitless cash, will re-sign Howell.

Drew Stubbs—Centerfielder
2013 team: Cleveland Indians
Previous contract: One year $2.825 million, with $50,000 in potential incentives

Stubbs can be a decent asset to a contending team off the bench, but he won’t get paid much this offseason. In 2013, he hit .233 with 10 home runs and 45 runs batted in. So he’s got some pop and also has an ability to spray the ball to all fields to drive in runs. The glaring problem is his atrocious strikeout rate. In 430 at bats, he fanned 141 times—that’s a whopping 32.7 percent. He does take walks at a respectable rate of 10.2 percent.

If he wants a chance to start in center field, Cleveland is about as good a team as he can be on. Otherwise, he’ll be in the dugout most of the time. His career .310 on base percentage is just far too low to merit consistent time with any contender.

Brandon Belt—First Baseman
2013 team: San Francisco Giants
Previous contract: One year, $531,500

Belt is far and away the best former Longhorn player in the majors right now. For just over $500,000, the Giants got a tremendous bargain for Belt’s production last season. Last season, he finished with a .289 batting average in 509 at bats. He hit 17 home runs and drove in 67 RBI. His OBP was a solid .360, so he takes his fair share of walks as well. He was also effective defensively at first base.

He is a left-handed power bat, and many teams envy a hitter who brings that to the table. Now, if the Giants want him to stick around, it’s time for them to pay up—Belt more than deserves it. But he’s been given one-year deals for the last three seasons and may want to get out of San Francisco for a bit to test his interest on the market. With his 2013 numbers, he’s earned a more secure and lucrative contract, maybe in the neighborhood of two to three years, 5 to 7 million dollars per year. The Giants likely have the room to re-sign him if they choose to.

Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

After the longest break from baseball he can remember, Jonathan Walsh is ready to start his second season in the minors. Where he ends up — whether it be San Bernardino, Calif., or Burlington, Iowa — depends on how he performs this month in minor league spring training.

“If I follow the [projected] path, I’ll end up at Burlington (Midwest League, a-ball),” Walsh said last week via telephone. “But if I show up and play well then maybe I can start in the Cal League, which is high-a.”

“What’s most important is not where I start but where I finish. My goal is to end up at high-a.”

It’s a slow climb from rookie ball to the major leagues, but Walsh — who played three years at Texas before being drafted by the Los Angeles Angels in the 11th round of the 2012 MLB Draft — got off to a good start last summer, hitting .300 in 230 at-bats with the Orem Owlz, with 45 RBIs, nine homers and a dead-even walk-to-strikeout ratio.

After Walsh’s season ended Sept. 6, he went to instructional league until Oct. 10, where he met most of the Angels’s prospects and was versed on the “Angel way.” Until the Texas Alumni Game on Feb. 2, Walsh hadn’t seen a competitive pitch. He went 1-for-4 with a run scored in the No. 18 jersey the Angels sent him, size XXX-L.

“It’s been pretty nice — I won’t lie,” Walsh said of his vacation from the game. “But I’m ready to get back to baseball.”

Here’s a look at the situations other notable former Longhorns find themselves in this spring:

Brandon Belt, 1B, San Francisco Giants

Now that he's established himself as a regular with the World Series champion Giants, Belt no longer has to look over his shoulder, dreading his next optioning to Triple-A. Instead, Belt will look forward. He does have much to improve on. He's a career .259 hitter and thus far has been unable to get enough lift on the ball (groundballs on 50.7 percent of his BAP). Given better job security at first base, Belt will likely better resemble the player who hit .343 in the minors. 

Huston Street, RP, San Diego Padres

An All-Star last season, Street re-upped with the Padres for two more years at $14 million after trade talks linking him to the Mets fell through. Given the tepid state of the closing pitcher these days — only two players to make the top-10 saves list in 2012 also appeared on the 2011 list — that might be too much to pay, but Street has been a consistent commodity since 2005. Last season he recorded a 1.85 ERA and saved 23 games in 24 opportunities. As San Diego gets better, more opportunities will come.

Drew Stubbs, RF, Cleveland Indians

A trade sent Stubbs from Cincinnati to Cleveland, which now boasts one of the best outfields in baseball. But where does Stubbs fit in? For now, he's probably the fourth outfielder. Cleveland signed Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher in the offseason and holdover Michael Brantley hit .288 in 2012. New manager Terry Francona has in the past done a good job of rotating outfielders for freshness and playing time, and Stubbs will also be helped by Swisher's ability to slide to first base or the designated hitter spot. Perhaps fewer plate appearances will lend to better discipline for Stubbs. He's finished sixth, first and fifth in strikeouts among National League players the past three seasons. 

Chance Ruffin, RP, Seattle Mariners

Relief pitchers who walk nine in 18 innings of work, or who record a 1.5 WHIP, do not hang around in the majors. It's a short sample size, though, and the bet is Ruffin, a former first-round pick of the Tigers, clamps down.

Taylor Jungmann, SP, Milwaukee Brewers

It'll probably be another year until big No. 26 — last seen wearing a lineman's number at the Alumni Game — gets called up to the majors. Jungmann went 11-6 in 26 starts in advanced-a ball, but his 3.53 ERA and 1.34 WHIP weren't indicative of his abilities. As a junior at Texas in 2011, Jungmann's WHIP (walks+hits per inning) was .83. 

Hoby Milner, P, Philadelphia Phillies

The elastic-armed Milner had quite the showing in his first season in the minors. He started 13 of 14 games — and compiled a 2.50 ERA — but projects as a reliever in the future.

Brandon Loy, SS, Detroit Tigers

Perhaps the best shortstop to ever set foot on the 40 Acres, Loy's coming ascension will surely be because of his glove work. He hit a paltry .240 with Class-A West Michigan, but he was also a late-bloomer — at the plate at least — with the Longhorns.

 

Editor’s note: This story was originally published June 5, 2009. Former Longhorns first baseman Brandon Belt, profiled here, will play in Saturday’s Alumni Game.

At 6 feet 5 inches tall, Brandon Belt has the makings of a top pitching prospect. Tall and lanky, he had great leverage off the mound and the perfect frame to add muscle. He had the angles to blow his low-90s fastball past hitters. He was left-handed, which never hurts a pitcher’s chances. 

In the middle of his dominant senior season a the ace of Hudson High School, a small school in East Texas, something changed for Belt. His velocity dropped below 90 mph. As his fastball’s speed dipped, so did his draft status.

“I had a chance to do really good, and go really high, but my velocity wasn’t as high as it once was, and I kind of slipped,” Belt said. 

Weeks after graduating high school, the Boston Red Sox drafted Belt in the 11th round of the 2006 draft. He became a dreaded “draft and follow” prospect, with Red Sox scouts tracking his progress during the summer before offering a contract. 

The pressure of scouts and radar guns continually looming over his every move was too much for Belt. His professional opportunity was slipping away.

“It was really tough on me, especially being 18 and all you want to do is play Major League Baseball,” Belt said. “I tried to stay positive, but there was a lot of pressure.”

When he signed to pitch for the Longhorns that year, Belt was still focused on chasing his dream of becoming a major league pitcher. 

“I was looking to go back into the draft,” Belt said. “That was on my mind, that is what I was looking to do. That is why I went to JUCO.”

Belt knew he could quickly improve his draft status by regaining his velocity at the junior college level, where he would also be eligible for the draft after his freshman year, an opportunity he would not have had if he came to Texas. 

As a pitcher and designated hitter, Belt led San Jacinto College in Houston to the Junior College World Series, batting .441 with 10 home runs in his freshman year, earning all-conference designated hitter honors and the 2007 JUCO World Series Big Stick Award. 

Belt didn’t improve his draft status; the Atlanta Braves selected him in the 11th round as a hitting prospect. That’s when Belt decided to head to Austin.

“I realized a lot of things,” Belt said. “You learn to be a team player, and if you are that, you will usually be a pretty good prospect. On a team with some of the best players in the country, just like I was, it is about winning as a team- you are not worried about your draft status.”

Free from the pressure, Belt was able to relax. Last season and his first at Texas, Belt conquered a new role, starting at first base while occasionally pitching out of the bullpen. Belt batter .319 and led the team with 65 RBIs. Consistent the whole season, he thrived in the Big 12 tournament, leading Texas to the title and winning the tournament’s most outstanding player award. 

Texas coach Augie Garrido saw what Belt could do at the plate and what he was learning could do at first base, but he believed Belt needed to focus on being a baseman. 

“Yeah, we thought he was going to be a pitcher for us,” Garrido said. “But that changed for us last year. We knew he had to focus on one or the other. When he pitched and performed poorly, it had a negative effect on him. He felt like he was a failure and it got away from him.”

This season, Belt has thrived in his role as the anchor of the Longhorns lineup. His .340 batting average, .574 slugging percentage, .432 on-base percentage and eight home runs all lead the team- and his 37 RBIs are one off of the leader. 

With TCU (39-18) heading to UFCU Disch-Falk Field for this weekend’s Super Regional, Belt is ready to keep his hot hitting alive, fueling the Longhorns’ (44-13-1) national championship hopes. The Horned Frogs earned their trip to the Super Regional with a walk-off win, capturing their host Forth Worth regional with a 5-4 victory over 2006 and 2007 national champion Oregon State. In the matchup between the two teams earlier this season, Texas cruised past the Horned Frogs with a 6-0 mid-week win. 

Although he rarely throws from the mound anymore, Belt is comfortable about his role with the Longhorns, who enter this weekend’s home regional as the national No. 1 seed. 

And while Belt might not play a role on the nation’s best pitching staff, he may have the nation’s best opposite-field power. While many left-handed power hitters pull the ball to right field, Belt thrives in driving doubles, and sometimes home runs, to the left. 

“In junior college, my coaches told me to hit the ball out that way,” Belt said. “I used to be a pull-hitter, always trying to pull big hits to the right, but at San Jacinto they said ‘You have a lot of power to left-center.’ So I just did it, and got used to hitting to the opposite field. 

The angular Belt has a unique approach at the plate, which is impossible to dissect. Even Garrido is afraid to change anything about his best hitter’s style.

“I don’t understand the mechanics of his swing,” Garrido said. “He is able to do it instinctively, and I have never tried to change it, because we don’t understand it.

What Garrido does understand is Belt’s competitive style. 

“He has a very playful side. He is high-energy, upbeat, fun loving- he motivates and loosens up the players and he has fun playing the game,” Garrido said. “He brings a lot of character to the team. Each player has his own individual game, and the goal is to get those games to match up, to become one with teamwork. He really plays a huge role in that.”

Ultra-competitive, Belt is always trying to win, even in pre-game warmup drills.

“He is always messing with [Travis] Tucker and [Brandon] Loy, saying he can outrun them,” Garrido said. “He calls himself a winner, and reminds everyone of that in the running drills. They try to hold him by his belt and cut in front of him to stop him from winning, but he finds a way to win.”

While Texas has failed to make it out of the regional round for three straight seasons, Belt helped the Longhorns find a way to capture two magical wins, though for a few scary moments in the regional’s first game against Army it looked like Texas would have to capture the tournament without its leading hitter. 

In the first inning of the opening game against Army, Belt took a fastball to the helmet. The errant pitch struck just under his ear, leaving Belt collapsed on the turf near home plate, blood gushing from a laceration. But Belt pushed through again, and after being cleared at the hospital on Friday night, he was back at the plate for Saturday’s game against Boston College, one that would become the longest game in NCAA history. 

In the 14-10 win over Army at the regional final, Belt had two hits, scored two runs and drove in another. His walk in the bottom of the ninth helped load the bases and prepared the way for Preston Clark’s walk-off grand slam. 

“Being a junior, I knew I wanted to accept a leadership role, but I’m not usually a real vocal guy, so I decided I would lead on the field,” Belt said. 

Belt has kept more than a steady head this season; his bat kept the Longhorns alive when the majority of the team was slumping at the plate. In this weekend’s Super Regional series with TCU, Belt hopes his leadership will pay off with a long-awaited trip to Omaha and the College World Series.

“I know that it is a long season, it is never to late to help the team and have a good season,” Belt said. “When you are young, you forget that when you are struggling.”

Instead of raising his voice, Belt continued to hit. And little by little, his Texas teammates came around. 

“It is rewarding, that is what you hope for,” Belt said. “That is what I want to do, make sure to use my experience to help other people come around at the plate.”

Belt, Stubbs, Jungmann, and Teagarden to play Alumni Game

Brandon Belt, Drew Stubbs, Taylor Jungmann and Taylor Teagarden will be among the former Longhorns playing in Saturday's Alumni Game.

Belt hit .257 with 56 RBIs as the starting first baseman for the World Series champion San Francisco Giants last season.  Stubbs, who was the starting center fielder on the Longhorns' 2005 national title squad, hit 14 home runs and stole 30 bases for the Cincinnati Reds last year. Teagarden, Texas' starting catcher on the 2005 championship team, backed up Matt Weiters for the Baltimore Orioles last season. Jungmann, the Brewers' first-round pick in the 2011 MLB Draft, is considered one of Milwaukee's top pitching prospects.