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Draft Round Battles: Brandon Belt Vs. Eric Hosmer

We're back for another year of Draft Round Battles, the series that pits players likely to be taken in roughly the same part of your fantasy draft against each other in a Sherlock-and-Moriarty-esque battle of wits a steel cage death match an analytical look at which will perform better in 2014.  We begin this year's battles with a typical Hollywood sports story...the golden boy against the out-of-nowhere prospect. 

Eric Hosmer has been Mr. Everything since the Royals took him third overall in 2008.  He tore up the minors and debuted in the bigs at age 21, hit a rough patch in his sophomore season at age 22 and then rebounded with a 17-homer, .302/.353/.448 campaign in 2013 that puts some of the worries to rest.  Even his slow start last season has a movie script twist to it --- Hosmer's came alive under the tutelage of the greatest Royal of all time.  The next act in the film would apparently be that Hosmer fully breaks through, becomes a superstar, and leads his misbegotten franchise back into the playoffs.

The out-of-nowhere guy, however, wasn't taken until the fifth round of the 2009 draft.  Brandon Belt wasn't on anyone's radar as a prospect but he proceeded to obliterate minor league pitching so fully that the Giants had no choice but to recall him after just 825 PA on the farm.  Since Aubrey Huff (the surprise hero of the Giants' 2010 World Series run) was locked in at first, Belt had to toil in left field and struggled to receive regular playing time until Huff's decline became too much for the Giants to ignore in 2012.  Belt took over as the everyday first baseman and played a big role in San Francisco's next World Series title.

You might not know what exactly happened next since the Giants fell off everyone's radar last season, but basically, Belt kind of went off.  His counting numbers (17 HR, 67 RBI, 76 runs) and slash line (.289/.360/.481) were solid but nothing too special for a first baseman but consider this --- Belt's 142 OPS+ ranked 17th amongst all MLB players.  His 24.3% line drive rate (topped by only 23 players last year) also helped Belt collect 39 doubles (tied for 11th-most in baseball), showing that he can still generate power despite playing at AT&T Park.

In short, Belt took the big step forward from 2012 to 2013 that Kansas City is hoping Hosmer takes from last season to the next.  The question is, do you presume it's all onward and upward for Hosmer from here on in, or do you perhaps go with the underrated guy in San Fran who's entering his prime age-26 season?

My instinct is to take Belt, and that's not just because I'm prone to backing the underdog.  You could argue that playing at AT&T Park will suppress Belt's power numbers...except it's not like Kauffman Stadium is exactly homer-friendly.  You could make the salient point that Belt was helped by a .351 BABIP last season...except then you'd also have to acknowledge Hosmer's .335 BABIP.   The .870 OPS that Hosmer posted over his last 461 PA, making everyone believe he'd turned the corner?  Belt quietly posted an .893 OPS over his final 462 PA of 2013.  The only true positives in Hosmer's favor are that he records far fewer strikeouts than Belt and his splits were pretty even, whereas Belt had more trouble against left-handed pitching (.755 OPS vs. LHP, .867 OPS vs. RHP).

The question, of course, is ceiling.  It's possible Belt has already hit his peak, and while a repeat of his 2013 performance would be nothing to sneeze at, it could pale in comparison to what Hosmer could put up if he makes The Leap into the superstardom that has been long predicted for him.

Taking nothing away from Hosmer's potential, however, it should be noted that over-valuing potential has led to the downfall of many a fantasy owner.  It can't be ignored that Belt, despite receiving almost 600 fewer PA, has outperformed Hosmer as a Major League player.  He could well continue that trend in 2014 or even take a leap in performance himself. 

I kind of cheated in making this my first Draft Round Battle of the year since I suspect Hosmer's pedigree will mean he gets picked a few rounds ahead of Belt in most fantasy drafts.  That doesn't mean you should jump to take Hosmer early just because another owner will snap him up, however.  Keep an eye on the undervalued guy out in San Francisco --- you could easily pass on Hosmer and find superior production later in your draft.

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