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 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. Today it's the first basemen, and it's not a big group ...
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.
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.
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 add depth at second base]
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.