Deep Giants built to withstand Belt’s injury

October 8th, 2021

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Giants will head into the National League Division Series against the Dodgers without a key piece of their lineup, as first baseman Brandon Belt is expected to be unavailable for the first round of the playoffs due to a fractured left thumb.

Belt’s injury is a blow to the Giants, who will be hard-pressed to replace the 33-year-old veteran’s middle-of-the-order production and stellar defense at first base, but they’ve managed to withstand his absence before.

Belt led San Francisco with a career-high 29 home runs and a .975 OPS, but he appeared in only 97 games after missing six weeks with a right knee injury earlier this year. Still, the Giants continued to chug along during Belt’s previous stint on the injured list, going 20-14 and embracing a “next-man-up mentality” in his stead. 

In many ways, the Giants’ first-base situation is emblematic of what has made the team so successful this season. As much as losing Belt stings, the Giants still have enough depth to cover first base thanks to contributions from three other players who have flown under the radar: LaMonte Wade Jr. (.808 OPS, 18 homers), Darin Ruf (.904 OPS, 16 homers) and Wilmer Flores (.782 OPS, 18 homers).

“I think the only thing that we can point to is what we’ve done when Brandon hasn’t been healthy,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “I think we’ve been just fine. That definitely doesn’t account for Brandon’s contributions. Defensively, the peace and calm he provides the rest of the infield. How much he works pitchers. All of those things are incredibly valuable, but we have done fine when he hasn’t been in the lineup for stretches.” 

Depth and flexibility have long been hallmarks of president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi’s approach to roster building, but he felt they would be even more important this year given the uncertainty that teams faced coming off the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign. It was impossible to predict how players would hold up with the return of the 162-game season, so Zaidi felt it was important to load up on depth and create contingency plans to guard against injuries or other unforeseen events. 

“I think it was a couple things,” Zaidi said. “One is definitely a function of the shortened season last year and knowing that it was going to be a battle of attrition for a lot of teams and players to get through a longer season. The other part of it is where we are -- or certainly where we were -- in the competitive cycle. We were still sort of at a stage where we wanted to create opportunity for players. We didn’t want to have every roster spot spoken for. We were going to have guys in [Triple-A] Sacramento who were going to get chances at some point. That’s sort of been part of our philosophy.”

Wade is the perfect example of that. Acquired from the Twins in exchange for right-hander Shaun Anderson in February, Wade opened the season in the Minors, but he got his first extended look with the Giants when Belt went down with an oblique strain in late May. The 27-year-old has primarily been used as an outfielder in the Majors, but he surprised the Giants with his proficiency at first base, a position he played in college. Wade ended up making the most of the opportunity, playing well enough to carve out a regular role with San Francisco and quickly emerging as a fan favorite due to his penchant for ninth-inning heroics.

“We want to have guys [at Triple-A Sacramento] that are deserving of opportunities,” Zaidi said. “Part of that bargain is to make sure you have the flexibility on your Major League roster to create opportunities.” 

Ruf and Flores are holdovers from last year, but they’re two other unheralded pickups who have played big roles for the Giants in 2021. Ruf, 35, signed a Minor League deal last year after spending the previous three seasons playing in Korea and is now one of the Giants’ top hitters, ranking second on the team with a 144 wRC+ behind Belt. Flores, 30, signed a two-year, $6.25 million deal and has drawn praise from Kapler not only for the quality of his at-bats, but also for his ability to consistently come through with clutch hits.

“Ruf and Flores are two of the better right-handed hitters in baseball, in my opinion,” Kapler said. “I think the world of both of those guys.”

Like Wade, Ruf and Flores are also versatile defenders, giving Kapler more flexibility to optimize matchups on any given night. The left-handed-hitting Wade sees most of his playing time against right-handed pitching, while Ruf and Flores most often start against lefties.

Kapler has said the “dream scenario” would be for Belt to return for the NL Championship Series, assuming the Giants can get past the Dodgers and advance to the next round. While he’s disappointed with the timing of his injury, Belt can rest a little easier knowing first base is in capable hands for now.

“It’s really been that way all season long,” Belt said. “When somebody has gone down, somebody else has stepped up. We have a lot of very good professional ballplayers over here. I think our chances of going to the next round are very, very good, just because we are a real complete ballclub, and we know how to go out there and win ballgames. I don’t think that changes whether I’m in the lineup or out of it. I’m very excited to see what happens.”