Brandon Belt opted to undergo season ending knee surgery this past week. The gossip around the water cooler is that he might retire at the end of the season and it’s likely the San Francisco Giants are without their go-to first baseman for the first time in over a decade.
It’s tough news, but not a shock. The team and its fans have grown accustomed to Belt absences.
Last season, he had three different stints on the injured list, missing 64 total days—most infamously a bunt gone awry that kept him out of the division series. He’s found himself struggling with his health again this season, missing 9 days on the COVID IL, 24 due to his bum knee and 14 and counting now that he’s hobbled for the rest of the season.
Even when he’s been active on the roster, he wasn’t playing 100 percent. It’s been frustrating for fans and, I imagine, ten-bajillion times more frustrating for Belt knowing what he’s capable of when he’s healthy.
Since 2020, Belt’s offensive production ranks him as one of the best first basemen in baseball, placing him among names like Goldschmidt, Freeman, Abreu and Guerrero. His OPS and wRC+ over these last three seasons are in the top 20 of all position players, rubbing shoulders with players like Austin Riley, Ronald Acuna Jr. and Manny Machado.
The only strike against Belt’s numbers is his durability. By the end of this season, Belt’s plate appearances will be around half of many of his comparable peers.
His performance in the 2021 season earned him a $18 million dollar qualifying offer and the opportunity to prove that he could stay healthy and match his previous year’s totals in ‘22.
It didn’t work out. This season’s .614 OPS was far below his career average of .814. His last home run came on July 17th right before the All-Star Break. He reached base for the last time on August 16th and went 0 for 4 in his last game of the season on August 20th.
Belt’s year went belly-up with San Francisco’s. His time on the injury list officially started on August 24th, the day the Giants lost to the Detroit Tigers 6-1 and embarked on their fateful 7-game losing streak that effectively ended their playoff chances.
I think Belt will call it quits after this season too. He’s acquired more than 10 years of league service time needed to bag the full pension while winning multiple championships, a 2016 All-Star nod, a future plaque on the Giants Wall of Fame, the honorary, semi self-bestowed title of “Captain” as well as the best/maybe worst nickname in baseball with “Baby Giraffe.”
It’s been a long, vibrant baseball life. The knee surgery coupled with the expiring one year deal is not a heroic, nor romantic, exit, but it is a natural one.
But even if Belt does feel good enough to return to baseball next season, it’s not going to be in a San Francisco uniform.
Farhan Zaidi says "everything's on the table" for the Giants this offseason https://t.co/K3rUxlOSPF— SF Giants on NBCS (@NBCSGiants) September 5, 2022
Farhan Zaidi, during his many appearances to ward off the growing qualms of fans, openly discussed the off-season strategy going into 2023 and a desire to become a more athletic and dynamic team, which means seeking out healthier (read younger) players.
Belt won’t be either of those come the new year, nor is he either of them now. The Giants have the first base position to consider for next year, but they also have a game tonight and about two dozen more after that.
Including Belt, 13 different players have donned the lobster claw (that’s my cool nickname for a 1st baseman’s mitt) for San Francisco this season.
The question of Who’s on first? is more pertinent to the Giants now than its been in a decade. Much like in the Abbott & Costello routine, the answer might be the same as the question as the Giants use the opening to try out a variety of players at the position from game to game or even inning to inning.
With Belt out and Darin Ruf on the Mets, utility man Wilmer Flores has the most appearances at the position. He’s definitely the most suited for the role being incredibly comfortable in the infield while not heavily reliant on his limited range. He’ll take over the bag against left-handed pitching or when Kapler wants his best defense on the field.
LaMonte Wade Jr. has been given more reps there as well with the team’s glut of outfield options. The move makes sense in a lot of ways. Defensively he’s not as good as Yaz or Slater, but can still provide a powerful punch at the top of the order against right-handed pitching. He’s also affordable and under team control, so these games at first could be priming him for an expanded platoon role at the position in ‘23.
Rookie third baseman David Villar started at first in Monday night’s game against the Dodgers. He’s made two appearances at the position so far this season and has experience there in every level of the minor leagues.
The Giants have stated they want to see Villar on the field as much as possible in the final month of the season and his work at 1st is a convenient way for him to get playing time. I don’t think the role is necessarily the end goal for the young infielder. The Giants want Villar playing third. They have other right-handed bats like Flores or J.D. Davis to plug in at first, while Villar can tandem at the hot corner with the left-handed Jason Vosler.
(The subtext of the last paragraph is the club doesn’t exercise their option with Evan Longoria and they resign Flores. More to come on this.)
First base is going to be like Area 51 for the rest of the season. A lot of experimentation, possibly some unsightly events.
We already saw LaMonte inexplicably slip and fall on a throw to home from the infield grass.
Last night Villar was forced to choose between the ball and bag on a wide throw from Longoria and ultimately ended up with neither as the ball rolled into foul territory while Mookie Betts advanced to second.
Could we even see Joc Pederson helming first bag? It wouldn’t be unheard of—he played 149 innings there in 2019 for the Dodgers and was seen taking throws there during practice in August.
Could be fun. Could also be terrible.
Joc Pederson been doing work at first base past couple days, but #SFGiants Gabe Kapler says, “I wouldn’t read too much into it.” pic.twitter.com/jE16MJlaSp— Evan Webeck (@EvanWebeck) August 17, 2022
The Giants have built in options to cover first base for this season and next—but none of them are 6’3’’ and wear size 15 cleats. They feel more like three position players stacked on each other’s shoulders in an over-sized trench coat pretending to be a first baseman rather than actually being one.
Let Kapler experiment all he wants for the rest of 2022, but if San Francisco wants to find a Brandon Belt replacement and legitimately have an answer to the question Who’s on first? in 2023, they need to find a player who can get on base, hit for power and cement the heart of the order day in and day out.
Josh Bell is my Who—but that’s another article (I have to fill my weekly quota somehow).
To me, filling the first base role in the offseason takes slight precedence over a corner outfielder mainly because it has become a direct need with Belt’s problematic year and feels like a box the team can check while still pursuing other higher-clout free agents. (Bell and Andrew Benintendi perhaps?)
This isn’t a hill I’m going to die on. If the front office goes all in on Aaron Judge or another infielder like Trea Turner, I’m not going to self-combust in exasperation—lineups can always make room for their kind of talent.
All I know is somebody has got to play first and for the first time in a long time, it won’t be Brandon Belt.