Longtime Giants infielder Brandon Belt confident he can return to form with Blue Jays

TORONTO — Veteran infielder Brandon Belt's right knee issues were so bad at times last year that he questioned whether he'd be able to keep playing in the big leagues.

A successful surgical procedure last September has restored his confidence and left him feeling bullish about the future as he joins the Toronto Blue Jays on a one-year contract.

"After the surgery, I'm telling you, it was pretty obvious right away that I was going to feel better," Belt said. "The optimism and the boost that I got from feeling that really got me excited about playing this year because I feel like I have so much left to offer.

"I can compete at a high level."

Belt, who played 12 seasons with San Francisco after being drafted by the Giants in 2009, became a free agent last fall. He said three or four teams expressed serious interest in his services.

"When I thought about the teams that I had to choose from, I just got really excited about the thought of going to play for Toronto," he said. "A great roster and a great young group of guys. They were a good baseball team last year and they got better this off-season.

"That's what gets me excited about playing baseball next (season)."

While not in stone, Belt is expecting to primarily serve in a designated hitter role and as a backup to first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

He also gives the Blue Jays another left-handed option at the plate after the recent additions of outfielders Kevin Kiermaier and Daulton Varsho.

Belt — who's known for his energy and leadership — was limited to 78 games with the Giants last year. He had several stints on the injured list due to knee inflammation and was limited to a .213 average with eight homers and 23 RBIs.

Over his career, he has a batting average of .261 and on-base percentage of .356. In the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Belt had an OPS of 1.016 and he hit a career-high 29 homers over 97 games in 2021.

"If my knee is healthy — which it is, I feel amazing right now — I'm going to be that same player that I was in 2020 and 2021," Belt said on a conference call. "That is who I am."

A six-foot-three 231-pound native of Nacogdoches, Texas, Belt also underwent right knee surgery in 2015 and 2018.

He described his recent knee issues as a "flaking" of cartilage that would sometimes catch when he bent his leg, creating a lot of swelling. As a result, Belt said the muscles around the knee "kind of shut down" as the year went on.

"It affected me in all parts of the game," he said. "I wasn't able to swing like I normally could, I couldn't run and I couldn't play defence."

Since the surgery, Belt said that he's had "zero swelling" and "zero pain" during rehab and off-season training.

"It has been able to do everything that I have asked it to do," he said. "So I know that I'm going to go out there next (season) and be who I am."

Belt won World Series titles with the Giants in 2012 and 2014.

His championship pedigree should serve as an asset for a Toronto club that has been swept in the first round of its last two playoff appearances. The Blue Jays haven't won a post-season series since 2016 and last won the Fall Classic in 1993.

Belt's offensive numbers could also see an uptick with his move north to Rogers Centre, a more hitter-friendly stadium than Oracle Park.

"Coming to a division with smaller ballparks, it's interesting," Belt said. "To be honest with you, that's part of the reason why I felt good about coming to the AL East."

Belt accepted a $18.4-million qualifying offer from the Giants for the 2022 season. His deal with the Blue Jays is worth $9.3 million.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 11, 2023.

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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press