Belt joining Blue Jays 'was the best situation'

January 11th, 2023

TORONTO -- Consider the Blue Jays’ lineup remodeled, with the club finalizing a one-year, $9.3 million deal with veteran on Tuesday.

Belt had been a fixture with the Giants for 12 seasons, winning World Series rings in 2012 and ’14. He played some outfield when he was younger, but he comes to the Blue Jays as a first baseman and DH option, giving manager John Schneider a major upgrade as a bench bat on days when he’s not in the lineup.

With three to four teams involved at the end, Belt’s decision wasn’t all that complicated.

“We felt like this was the best situation and best baseball decision for us,” Belt said on an introductory Zoom call Wednesday. “When I thought about the teams I had to choose from, I just got really excited about the thought of going to play for Toronto. It’s a great roster, a great, young group of guys, and they were a good baseball team last year that got better this offseason. That’s what gets me excited about playing baseball next year.”

The 34-year-old is coming off a down year, though, with his .213 average and .676 OPS both outliers compared to his career numbers. Belt was dealing with right knee issues that had followed him for years, stretching back to meniscus surgery in 2015. He underwent another surgery in ’18, then required arthroscopic surgery in September of ’22, ending his season early.

The trouble went beyond baserunning and playing the field for Belt. Over the past couple of years, he says he hadn’t even been able to run around the backyard with his young sons. Now, with the surgery behind him, a refreshed Belt says a healthy knee has “completely changed” his outlook on what’s to come.

“I didn’t know if I was done playing baseball,” Belt said, “but the recovery from it and me being able to know my body and feel my body, I felt great. Right away, I knew there was reason for optimism. That’s why I’m just so happy to get out there right now.”

Belt owns a career on-base percentage of .356, which is an area the Blue Jays have prioritized. Toronto fell just short of the postseason in 2021 and went down in flames in the American League Wild Card round this past season, but both of those failures came with lineups that were exceptional on paper. How, then, could the Blue Jays approach the same old problem from a different angle?

Their answer has focused mostly on defense, with the free-agent signing of Kevin Kiermaier and a major trade for Daulton Varsho. Those two replaced fan favorites Teoscar Hernández and Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and now with Belt, the Blue Jays are looking to diversify an offense that often leaned on right-handed bats to deliver a big blow.

Belt, a lefty, has always hit right-handed pitching well and should have two fairly clear paths to playing time in 2023.

The easiest at-bats for Belt will come at DH, where he should see time on days that Alejandro Kirk catches. When Danny Jansen is behind the plate, Kirk himself may be the better DH option. But Belt is a good bet to end the season with the most at-bats there. If he can produce regularly, this would also allow the Blue Jays to keep their catchers fresh.

“I’m so optimistic about this year,” Belt said. “I feel great. There should be no excuses for me; I’ll say it right now. I feel like I’m going to be who I was in 2020 and ’21. If it doesn’t end up like that, it’s not because of something physical.”

Belt should also serve as Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s primary backup at first base, a position the veteran still plays regularly. Last season, Guerrero started 126 games at first, so it’s easy to envision 30 starts for Belt along the way. Don’t sleep on the value of his experience, too, which is something the Blue Jays are enamored by.

As long as Belt is healthy and productive, this is a bat that will find its way into the lineup. Besides, the Blue Jays aren’t spending $9.3 million -- especially with their current payroll -- to have a player collect dust on the bench. While it’s still possible the club adds another true outfielder to round out that new-look group, Belt’s addition feels like that “missing piece” to a lineup that has undergone some significant changes.

While Belt, Kiermaier and Varsho were all acquired for different reasons, they all bat left-handed and all represent a philosophical shift for an organization that currently sits right in the middle of its competitive window but has yet to reach the heights that the talent on this roster is capable of.