After 12 seasons with the Giants, Brandon Belt is headed to Toronto. He’s in agreement with the Blue Jays on a one-year, $9.3MM contract for the 2023 season. The Excel Sports Management client has reportedly already passed his physical. The Jays are expected to formally announce the signing Tuesday, at which point they’ll need to make a corresponding 40-man roster move.
A fifth-round pick by San Francisco in 2009, Belt reached the majors two seasons later. He played in 63 games as a rookie and took hold of the primary first base job by his second season. Belt was a key contributor on San Francisco’s 2012 World Series team, hitting .275/.360/.421 over 145 games. Injuries limited him to 61 regular season contests during the 2014 season, but he was healthy enough to contribute to San Francisco’s third title in five years during the playoffs.
Belt battled intermittent injury issues throughout the coming years. When healthy, he was a consistently productive offensive player. While San Francisco’s pitcher-friendly home ballpark depressed his over-the-fence power, he was an annual threat for 30+ doubles and posted huge on-base numbers thanks to massive walk rates. At the beginning of the 2016 season, the Giants inked Belt to a $72.8MM extension that kept him off the open market through the 2021 campaign. He followed up with a .275/.394/.474 showing through 655 trips to the plate, earning his only career All-Star nod in the process.
The Texas product saw his production tail off a bit over the next few seasons, hitting at a slightly above-average level through 2019. He rebounded in a huge way in 2020, mashing at a .309/.425/.591 clip to secure some down-ballot MVP support during the shortened season. He continued to rake the following season but saw that year frequently interrupted by injury. Belt lost time to a left oblique strain and soreness in his right knee but managed a .274/.378/.597 showing while shattering his previous career mark with 29 home runs in just 97 games. Unfortunately, an errant pitch fractured his left thumb late in the season and he was unable to participate in San Francisco’s playoff run.
In advance of what was set to be Belt’s first trip to free agency, the Giants tagged him with an $18.9MM qualifying offer. He accepted and returned to the Bay Area for another season. Injuries again proved problematic, this time seemingly having a deleterious effect on his performance even when he managed to take the field. Belt had a trio of IL stints last season and while the first was a very brief absence related to COVID-19, the latter two were more worrisome. He lost around three weeks between May and June due to inflammation in his balky right knee and that again arose in mid-August.
After his second knee-related IL placement, the veteran elected to shut things down and undergo season-ending surgery. It was the third surgical procedure he’d undergone on that knee. Belt acknowledged that he might contemplate retirement if recovery did not go well, but he told reporters a few weeks later that he felt revitalized by the operation.
The injuries sent him to the open market in advance of his age-35 campaign coming off arguably his worst season. He hit .213/.326/.350 through 298 trips to the plate. Belt still walked at an excellent 12.4% clip but saw his power production drop. He managed eight home runs and posted a career-low .138 ISO (slugging minus batting average). Belt’s 38.5% hard contact rate, while still a bit better than average, was markedly down from his 2020-21 levels.
Toronto clearly believes that decreased production was a symptom of the injuries, which the club can hope won’t be as concerning after last summer’s surgery. If Belt can recapture any of his previous form, he’d add a quality left-handed bat to a predominantly right-handed lineup. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. will be the everyday first baseman. Danny Jansen and Alejandro Kirk figure to get a decent number of designated hitter at-bats when the other is in the lineup at catcher. Everyone in that group hits from the right side, so Belt adds some balance to the mix. None of those players will be strictly relegated to the short side of a platoon by Belt, but he adds another high-upside offensive option for skipper John Schneider.
It’s a short-term deal but it’s not an insignificant commitment for the club. Tacking on Belt’s $9.3MM salary brings Toronto’s projected 2023 payroll a bit above $212MM, as calculated by Roster Resource. That shatters last year’s approximate $171MM commitment, which had been a franchise record. More notably, it firmly positions the Jays as likely luxury tax payers for the first time in franchise history. The organization is up around $242MM in tax obligations, according to Roster Resource. After entering the night within a rounding error of the base threshold of $233MM, they’re pushing well past it to bring in more offensive help.
A team’s CBT number is officially tabulated at the end of the season, so the front office could theoretically look for ways to dip back under the line. That seems unlikely as the Jays battle for what they hope will be their first AL East title in eight years. Toronto boasts one of the league’s best lineups but could still look for help at the back of the rotation or in the bullpen over the next couple of months.
The Blue Jays will pay a 20% tax on their first $20MM in CBT overages. They’re set to take on around $1.84MM in fees as a result of this signing, meaning their actual commitment to bring in Belt is closer to $11MM. If they surpass the $253MM mark, they’d be taxed at a 30% rate on any additional overages. Going past $273MM would come with further penalties.
San Francisco will move forward without one of the last remaining players from their excellent run in the first half of the last decade. Brandon Crawford is the only player from the 2014 team who is still a Giant. It had long looked as if the club were going in that direction this offseason, with LaMonte Wade Jr. and JD Davis looking likely to share first base reps.
Belt was one of the top first basemen still available on the open market. The free agent class at the position is now led by Trey Mancini and Yuli Gurrielwhile Luke Voit and Miguel Sanó are around as bounceback targets for clubs looking to roll the dice on a power bat.
Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle was first to report Belt and the Blue Jays were in agreement on a one-year contract that’d be announced Tuesday and that Belt had already passed his physical. Kaitlyn McGrath of the Athletic was first with the $9.3MM guarantee.
Image courtesy of USA Today Sports.