Justin over at Chicken Friars sort of beat me to the punch on this article, with his recent piece on infielder Vince Belnome. It’s a good read and covers the basics of who Belnome is as a player and potential prospect. I won’t regurgitate too much of his analysis here (hence, the link); however, I will explore some of his performance in a bit more detail and go so far as to say that I think Belnome will be on San Diego’s roster at some point early during the 2012 season.

Belnome is a player who hasn’t received much hype until recently. He doesn’t often appear on prospect lists, and if he does, he’s likely to be listed in the higher numbers. But fans and scouts alike are starting to take notice of the 5′ 11″ 205 pounder, and it’s likely because he’s proven he can handle himself with the lumber.

Belnome was drafted in the 28th round of the 2009 draft out of West Virginia. There’s a certain other Padres prospect who came from that same team a year later by the name of Jedd Gyorko. That’s probably a name you recognize at the top of most prospect lists, and for good reason. Gyorko was a second rounder and just completed an Arizona Fall League season where he nearly set the record for batting average.

Obviously, late-round picks are rarely given much fanfare, but ask Mike Piazza (62 round) what he thinks about draft order. (I know…he’s the exception.) Belnome is quickly becoming another example of proof that major league quality players can be found throughout all levels of the draft.

The reasons are simple: he knows what he’s doing in the box, and he’s not going to give away too many runs with his glove. Now, most teams look for elite defense up the middle. With Belnome manning second base, his defense can’t exactly be considered elite, so his prospect status takes a hit. But, let’s look at the numbers on both sides of the field and give him his due.

In three minor league seasons, Belnome has straight produced. He’s clubbed 43 HRs and knocked in an impressive 200 RBIs in 285 games. In 1,256 PAs, he’s walked 205 times and struck out 255 times. On defense, his fielding percentages break down as such (range factors per game in parenthesis):

442 CH @ 3B: .914 (2.64)

416 CH @ 2B: .976 (4.61)

177 CH @ 1B: .989 (8.75)

Now, 5’11” and 200 lbs+ sounds like a nice frame for a slugging 3B, but you can see that his glove work at the hot corner is not terribly strong. As a first baseman, though, Belnome’s defense gets better. However, his height doesn’t fit the position. At second, Belnome seems to have found somewhat of a home. The FLD% is good, and the range factor is solid as well. The struggle here, though, is with the body as well. Big-bodied second baseman don’t fit the mode unless their name is Dan Uggla (5’11”, 205 lbs).  The position requires nimble footwork and quick bursts and turns of activity. Now, if you can slug like Uggla, people forget about the defense. Uggla’s second base range factor in the minors was 4.41, by the way, very similar to Belnome. So, essentially, at second, Belnome won’t give up many runs, but he also won’t save many, either. The question will be, can he slug like Uggla?

Let’s look a bit closer in that department.

Belnome’s 2009 season was an impressive introduction to pro ball. Between Eugene (A-) and Ft. Wayne (A), he compiled a gaudy slash of: .321/.444/.519 (.963 OPS). Additionally, only 32 of his 268 at bats that season were in Ft. Wayne. The organization thought highly enough of his bat that he basically skipped A ball, and was moved up to hi-A Lake Elsinore in 2010. In the hitter-friendly California League, Belnome put forth: .273/.397/.436. He knocked in a career high 84 RBIs that season to go along with 16 HRs, also a career high.

The following season saw him move up to Double-A San Antonio, notoriously pitcher-friendly. Not if you ask Belnome. In 267 at bats, he produced: .333/.432/.603. Just video game-like. He set a career best in HR with 17 in half the games of his previous season. He managed just 75 games last season due to injury, but many in San Antonio felt he was the team’s MVP, and the numbers bear that out.

Overall, Belnome’s career slash in three seasons looks like this: .301/.418/.500 (.918 OPS). In case you’re wondering, Uggla’s career minor league slash line in five seasons was: .276/.347/.442 (.789). Am I suggesting Belnome is the next Uggla? Maybe. Maybe he could be even better. Why? He’s got a considerably better eye. In low-A, Belnome’s BB% was 17.6. In hi-A, he maintained 16.8%, and in limited time in Double-A, it was 14.8%. Uggla’s overall major league BB% is 10.5%. [Granted, that’s a minor league versus major league comparison. Somebody help me find data on FanGraphs that comes before 2006!]. The power is there, too. His ISO for those same seasons: .203, .163, and .270.

Now, he does hit left-handed, and he will be playing his games in Petco National Park, but I think you’ll see Belnome manning second base sooner than any other minor league infielder gets the call up. Once he establishes that he’s healthy, and once he starts demolishing PCL parks and pitchers, I think you’ll see the big league club take notice. He’ll look even better once Orlando Hudson scuffles again, preferring to spend his down time discussing the finer points of lawn mowing on Twitter.

Keep your eye on Belnome, and see if he doesn’t open some other eyes in San Diego this coming season.