If Giants' Belt makes the cut, who will get the ax? 

What a difference a year makes. The Giants opened last season struggling to find enough proven bats and arms to field a competitive team. Now, thanks to a bounty of good hitters and pitchers, they begin their title defense with too much of a good thing, hence some tough roster decisions.

Sweet-swinging Brandon Belt has possibly forced San Francisco to drop Travis Ishikawa and/or Aaron Rowand. If Belt stays, Ishikawa — a great late-inning defensive replacement who batted a team-high .319 as a pinch hitter last season — is probably the odd man out, especially given the fact that the rookie hotshot and Aubrey Huff are also left-handed-hitting first basemen.

Then again, general manager Brian Sabean values Ishikawa’s glove and clutch hitting, so he would likely stay if Rowand sings the “play me or let me go” song. The hyper-intense 33-year-old was clearly not happy about losing his center-field job last year. Keep the blood pressure meds handy when Rowand looks at this year’s outfield depth chart that places him behind Andres Torres, Cody Ross, Pat Burrell, Huff and maybe even Mark DeRosa.

DeRosa’s sore left wrist is acting up again, so the Giants could buy some time by putting him on the disabled list. Either way, Rowand’s contract and declining production make him an albatross. While his offensive output has declined over the past four seasons (batting averages from 2007 to 2010, respectively: .309, .271, .261, .230), Rowand will be paid $24 million the next two years, meaning he will probably stay, sit and stew about it. Which brings us back to Belt.

As tempting as it is to plug the soon-to-be 23-year-old into the Opening Day lineup, patience should prevail. After leading the University of Texas to the championship game of the 2009 College World Series, Belt was fast-tracked through the minors last year. He tore up the Class-A California League, batting .383 with San Jose and .337 with Richmond in the AA Eastern League.

But when called up to AAA Fresno in September, Belt hit only .229 in 13 games in the hitting-friendly Pacific Coast League. Was he worn out from playing a career-high 136 games? Or did the Giants simply expect too much too soon? Last year’s rookie sensations Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner both spent 2½ seasons in the minors before jump-starting San Francisco’s magical championship run. Posey batted .337 in his two years at Fresno before making an almost seamless transition to the Show.

As good as Belt has looked at times in Arizona, hitting .269 with two homers and 10 RBIs in 21 games, Huff wisely noted, “The big leagues, it’s another animal up there.”

Dare I remind Giants fans of last year’s Cactus League phenomenon John Bowker, who parlayed a .312 average and team-high six homers and 22 RBIs into an Opening Day start in right field. But after hitting only .207 in 41 games, Bowker was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates. So why make so many potentially unsettling changes to accommodate a promising but untested rookie?

Have Belt open the season in Fresno. Keep Huff at first base, with Ishikawa ready when needed. And give Rowand the occasional start in left and center field so he doesn’t have to take his frustration out on the dugout water cooler. Maybe Rowand can take out his frustrations on opposing pitchers rather than reporters who got the stink eye when asking him about being demoted.

KGO (810 AM) Sports Director Rich Walcoff can be heard weekdays from 5 to 9 a.m. on the KGO morning news. He can be reached at RichWalcoff@gmail.com.

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Rich Walcoff

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