The Toronto Blue Jays' roster is practically set, which meant the next logical step was to add to the fringes. The club did exactly that Monday evening, signing first baseman and two-time World Series champion Brandon Belt. The contract will be worth $9.3 million over one year.
"As we continue to improve upon a strong Blue Jays roster, the elite offensive skills and veteran presence of [Belt] is an addition that will greatly complement this team," said Toronto general manager Ross Atkins. "His consistency and experience on the game’s biggest stages make him a great addition culturally and within our clubhouse."
Belt, 34, slashed .213/.326/.350 in 78 games with the San Francisco Giants a year ago before a knee injury cut his season short. His career slash line of .261/.356/.458 is much more impressive, and the Blue Jays are clearly gambling on his health holding up and a return to form on offence.
Here’s how Belt fits on the 2023 Blue Jays squad.
Pop at the Plate
A comb through Belt’s hitting stats reveals he is a surprisingly consistent offensive performer. The Texas native was an above-average hitter, in terms of OPS+, from 2011 to 2018. After a weaker year in 2019, Belt exploded again in 2020, posting a 1.015 OPS in 51 games. From 2020 to 2022, his career has resurged (.260/.370/.510), although he’s played just 226 games.
The past is dandy, but what does Belt offer now? For starters, he has a really strong eye out of the left-handed batter’s box. In 2021, Belt ranked in the 90th percentile in walk rate. He’s always worked his walks, but he also swings and misses a decent amount (81 strikeouts in 78 games last year).
Brandon Belt set the MLB record with a 21-pitch at-bat that lasted nearly 13 minutes.
We got it down to 50 seconds for you. pic.twitter.com/hwfb6S1qzM
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) April 22, 2018
The eagle eye and high whiff numbers are complemented by excellent barrel numbers, meaning when Belt connects, he typically drives the ball. In a sense, he’s much like current Blue Jay Matt Chapman, a patient hitter who swings out of his shoes when he gets the chance. Belt’s power will decide his success in Toronto. His slugging percentage exploded in 2020 and 2021 but came to a violent halt during his forgettable 2022 season.
As for splits, Belt is predictably a better hitter versus right-handers (.840 OPS) than left-handers (.748 OPS). While the Blue Jays’ roster now has a few good left-handed hitting options, Belt should be a lock to hit against righties. Against lefties, it’s really only his power that suffers, as his OBP numbers remain solid against all pitchers.
If Belt were confined to a full-time backup role, he’d be arguably the best bench bat in the league. In fact, he’s far too good to sit on the bench. Toronto’s greatest challenge will be finding reps for him.
Belt’s been a slightly below-average defensive first baseman over the last two years (minus-1 OAA), so a lot of his reps will come at designated hitter. Against right-handers, Belt could easily slot in as the DH, giving either Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Alejandro Kirk, or Danny Jansen a break. If Belt’s swing isn’t so smooth early in the season, he could easily be relegated to pinch-hitting duties, which, again, is a luxury for Toronto.
The acquisition of Belt presumably leaves an odd man out in the Blue Jays’ bench rotation. Whit Merrifield and Santiago Espinal will likely split time at second base, while Belt will be the backup at first, squeezing Cavan Biggio out of a role he settled into last year.
Biggio had a fantastic 2020 season (.807 OPS in 59 games) but hasn’t recreated his success at the plate the last two years (.673 OPS). If Biggio is permanently a sub-.700 OPS guy, then Belt will add the power that’s been missing from the Blue Jays’ utility guys.
— Chris Black (@DownToBlack) January 10, 2023
Ah, yes, the big question. Belt battled a nasty right knee injury last season that hampered his everyday play. His knee would swell up constantly, so the veteran opted for season-ending surgery on Sept. 3. That procedure was Belt’s third surgery on that right knee. There are clear red flags with this injury.
For someone as tall as Belt — he’s nicknamed "Baby Giraffe" for his gangly stature — a reoccurring knee injury is a big problem. Like with Kevin Kiermaier and his surgically repaired hip, the Blue Jays will need to institute a degree of "load management" for Belt’s reps. That means less running, less batting practice, and more time in the designated hitter spot.
Belt will almost certainly be on the injured list at least once during the 2023 season. That’s alright. Guys on the wrong side of 30 like Kiermaier, Belt, and George Springer shouldn’t be counted on for a full 162 games. But if Belt can stay on the field and find a groove at the plate, Toronto may have executed one of the winter’s best bargain signings.
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