Belliard was signed by the Tribe to a one-year, one-million-dollar deal to man the keystone in 2004 until Brandon Phillips shows he is ready to assume the mantle. As recently as the spring of 2002, Belliard was considered a poor man's Ray Durham, just a step below Robbie Alomar and Jeff Kent in the second base hierarchy. And it was deserved - after all, in 2001 Belliard slugged .453 with 44 extra-base hits in just 364 AB while playing above-average defense . Then came a disastrous 2002 in which he posted a .544 OPS and struck out 2.5 times more often than he walked.
Belliard rebounded in 2003 playing second for the Rockies but his stats were significantly better in the cozy confines of Coors Field (.892 OPS home vs. 656 OPS road). Many Rockies hitters have shown similar split personalities but it remains to be seen whether Belliard will emulate Andres Galarraga or Jeff Cirillo when he returns to sea level. His K/BB ratio has increased from 1:1 to 1.5:1 or greater in the last three seasons after showing very good control of the strike zone his first two seasons.
Roger Brown of the Plain Dealer stopped just short of calling him a fat-ass in his column last month, prompting some Indians fans to already dub him Ronnie "Beer" Belly-ard. It's true that his reported playing weight last season was 197, up from 180 in his rookie year. But numbers never tell the whole story so I e-mailed Carlos Lugo, the TV voice of the Estrellas de Oriente ballclub and author of the Dominican Winter League Report over at Baseball Prospectus, to get a first-hand account. Here are a few of his observations:
- "He does have a few excess pounds, but I won't call it "very overweight". Of
course, Belliard is not very tall and "a few excess pounds" it's definitely
something undesirable, and I would say that weight problems and a deterioration
of his strike zone judgment have stalled his career."
- "He played a few games early in the
season at second, but as soon as D'Angelo Jimenez was ready to play defense, he
moved to third base, where I think he played decently, considering the fact that
third base is not his natural position. Curiously, during the playoffs, I would
say Belliard has played "brilliantly" at third base, showing very good range to
his left, looking great on back-hand plays to his right and slow grounders and
bunts, and also good footwork."
- "Right now his swing is looking atrocious, as he's
trying to uppercut every single pitch, and hitting popup after popup as a
result. The few times he has changed the approach, and tried to level the swing
and hit the ball to the ground, or a line drive, he's been much better."
Though Mark Shapiro has touted Belliard's ability to play short as well as second and third, it's worth noting that his major-league experience at short consists of one game in 1999. Belliard rates as a slightly below-average defender at second base by most metrics (despite an excellent range factor in 2003) and based on Lugo's testimony, he appears to have the reflexes to play third well. Belliard was reportedly the Indians' second choice after Todd Walker, for whom Shapiro was ready to bust the budget.
My first choice would have been Adam Kennedy had he been non-tendered by the Angels. But since Kennedy re-upped with the Halos, I would have preferred Pokey Reese over Belliard or Walker. Providing a strong infield defense is critical to developing the confidence of our young pitchers and Reese was the best defender available. Plus, he signed with the Red Sox for the same terms as Belliard. As a one season placeholder though, I think the Tribe did well with Belliard. Despite his conditioning issues, he has a strong offensive upside and can play league-average defense at two positions.