Giants

Giants spring preview: Brandon Belt headed for a decade at first base

Giants spring preview: Brandon Belt headed for a decade at first base

There aren't many players around the league who get thrown into trade rumors by their own fans more than Brandon Belt does, but as the Giants prepare for their first spring under manager Gabe Kapler, the 31-year-old first baseman is headed for a milestone. 

If Belt is standing at his usual position on Opening Day at Dodger Stadium, he'll become just the third Giant to make double-digit Opening Day starts at first base and the first to do it 10 consecutive seasons.

Willie McCovey never made 10 consecutive Opening Day starts at first base for the Giants. Will Clark and J.T. Snow didn't, either. Barring an injury, Brandon Belt, survivor of the #BeltWars, will stand alone with that distinction. 

Yesterday we looked at the catchers who will be in camp for the Giants, led by Buster Posey, who also is poised for his 10th consecutive Opening Day start. On Wednesday, it's the first basemen, and it's not a big group ... 

Brandon Belt

Gabe Kapler had one of the more fascinating introductory press conferences we've ever seen in the Bay Area, but late in that hour, he made a point of mentioning one of his key players. 

"I've thought a lot about Brandon Belt (and) how impressive it is to watch him take an at-bat, independent of the outcome of the at-bat," Kapler said in November. "He tends to look over pitches and make really good swing-or-don't-swing decisions."

Kapler isn't alone here. Throughout the organization, the Giants are teaching their young hitters to be more patient and have a better sense of the strike zone. A common thread through just about all of the non-roster additions over the last 14 months has been solid to high on-base percentages.

Belt, who finished 15th in the NL in pitches per plate appearance even in a down year, has plenty of fans in this new regime, and the Giants intend to accentuate his strengths, which is a bit of a change of pace from a staff that was frustrated with Belt's lack of aggression at times. 

That's part of the reason trade whispers have never made any sense. Belt, who was hampered by a knee injury much of last year, is coming off the worst statistical season of his career. Farhan Zaidi and Scott Harris would have been selling low, and that's not what those two do.

With a new staff, hopefully some improved health, and ballpark changes that should help Belt more than anyone, the Giants are optimistic. 

But ... they're also ready to be quicker with adjustments, and this new staff is ready to be far more aggressive with platoons and days off when the matchup is a poor one. Belt has a .815 OPS against righties the past three seasons, but it's just .668 against lefties. If that continues, Belt will find himself starting a lot more games in the dugout. 

Darin Ruf

That last sentence is why Ruf, who will be in camp as a non-roster invitee according to The Athletic, might be more interesting than your average 33-year-old returning from the KBO. Ruf was a part-timer for the Phillies for most of his five seasons there (he was not there when Kapler was the manager) but he always hit lefties.

He has a .299/.379/.542 slash line in 271 career at-bats against lefties, with experience at first base and in the outfield. 

The Giants have preached versatility since Zaidi took over, but they also now have a 26th roster spot to play with and can more easily carry a lefty-masher on their bench. 

Ruf spent the past three seasons in the KBO, where he hit 86 homers and compiled a .313/.404/.564 slash line. That league isn't anywhere near the level of competition as the big leagues, but the Giants clearly saw something they liked. 

Zach Green

Green was one of the more interesting non-roster invitees last spring, a 24-year-old who had hit 20 homers the year before as a Phillies minor leaguer. The Sacramento native took full advantage of whatever happened to the PCL last year, crushing 25 homers in 252 Triple-A at-bats. 

Green, who primarily plays third, actually got 16 plate appearances for the Giants right before and after the trade deadline, but he had just two hits and struck out six times. In September, the Giants placed Green on the 60-day injured list with a hip impingement to clear a roster spot for Wandy Peralta.

Green was then outrighted off the 40-man roster in November, but he signed a minor league deal and returns to a good situation. 

The Giants have a much-improved farm system, but they have very little talent at the corner infield spots in the upper levels of the minors. If Green can pick up where he left off, he should be an everyday starter for the River Cats and could be one injury away from significant big league playing time.

[RELATED: Giants spring preview: What Posey's back-up race looks like]

The Wild Card

Amazingly, Belt is the only true first baseman on the 40-man roster, but there are others with experience. Buster Posey made just three starts at first last year and it doesn't sound like the Giants want that to change in 2020. Keep an eye on Austin Slater, though.

He can handle first defensively and the Giants want to find more ways to get his right-handed bat in the lineup. 

Buster Posey looked like Comeback Player of the Year, Mike Krukow says

Buster Posey looked like Comeback Player of the Year, Mike Krukow says

At his absolutely best, Buster Posey can hit 20 home runs a season.

But in 219 games over the last two seasons, the Giants catcher has bashed a total of 12 homers.

Issues with the hips stripped Posey of his power, and he didn't look like an MVP-caliber player in 2019.

But according to Giants broadcasters Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow, they saw the old Posey in Scottsdale, Arizona during spring training in late February and early March.

"I think what he did when we got to Arizona, is he immediately passed our eye test, where the way he was moving, the way he was swinging, he was getting his hips into his swing," Kuiper told Amy Gutierrez earlier this week. "And then it was nice to actually hear him say "Yeah, I feel really, really good this spring.' I never heard him say one time last spring 'I feel really good.' He didn't.

"He's not going to tell you how he feels. But he did tell us in spring training he felt really, really good. And judging by what we saw, it certainly looked like he felt really good."

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Krukow had even higher praise for the 2012 NL MVP and three-time World Series champion.

"I thought I was looking at the Comeback Player of the Year every time I saw him step in the batter's box," Krukow said. "It's night and day. More than a couple times last year, when we watched Buster in the box, we thought 'Is he just not seeing it? He's got no lower body.' The bottom line is, he was hurt. And we always asked him ... we quit asking him that because we always got the same BS answer. He's old-school. He's not going to tell you or anybody that he doesn't feel good because he doesn't want to create an advantage for the other team. He's going to tell you 'I'm good to go. End of story. Don't even ask me again.'

[RELATED: Takeaways from GIants' simulated opener]

"But when we got down to spring training this year and it was his first at-bat, he took the first at-bat, first couple of swings, we looked at each other and went 'Mmmhmm.' Now we want to see it the next day because we'd see it everyone once in a while last year, but you wouldn't see it two or three or four days in a row. We saw it every at-bat in spring training. And at the end of spring training, that was the talk of camp, really. We thought we were looking at the Comeback Player of the Year and I believe this. This guy finally feels good, he's finally seeing the ball and his bat speed is back, his hand speed is back and that is exciting for us."

Kruk, Kuip and Giants fans everywhere will have to wait to see a rejuvenated Posey take the field again. The global coronavirus pandemic has the MLB season on hold for an undetermined amount of time.

But Kruk and Kuip's assessment of Posey gives Giants fans something to look forward to when baseball does return.

Watch Giants-Dodgers Opening Day simulation from 'MLB The Show 20'

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Watch Giants-Dodgers Opening Day simulation from 'MLB The Show 20'

Friday should've marked the Giants' home opener against the rival Los Angeles Dodgers at Oracle Park. The global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic pushed it back, as well as the rest of the MLB season, but we've got you covered with the next best thing.

You probably missed broadcasters Duane Kuiper, Mike Krukow and Amy Gutierrez bringing you the sounds of summer, but all three were on the call of NBC Sports Bay Area's simulation of the game in "MLB The Show 20" that aired Friday night. Even if you missed the broadcast, you can now watch the full simulation with Kuip, Kruk and Amy G on commentary on our YouTube page.

The virtual Giants started the 2020 season on the wrong foot, and they returned home to San Francisco in search of their first win. Could they get it in a high-scoring battle with their biggest rivals? Watch to find out, and give Giants Insider Alex Pavlovic's takeaways a read once you do.