It hasn’t sunk in yet, that we get to see our favourite baseball teams and players soon. This month in fact, if the global pandemic permits. The San Francisco Giants are busy preparing themselves for Spring Training in their Scottsdale, Arizona home. It is a glorious time, full of hope and anticipation.
There is one minor speed bump though. It involves the health of veteran first baseman Brandon Belt, who is currently listed as doubtful to start Opening Day. The 33-year-old Belt had offseason surgery to remove a bone spur in his heel, a problem he dealt with all of last season that thankfully didn’t appear to hinder his performance. Belt had a career year in the shortened 2020 campaign, ranking among the best hitters in the National League. Belt posted career-highs in OPS (1.015), batting average (.309) and on-base percentage (.425). Here’s hoping a rejuvenated and healthy Belt can be even better in 2021. The injury to Belt does leave the Giants with a predicament, though: who’s on first?
When Gabe Kapler’s team takes the field in Seattle on Opening Day, there are a handful of candidates who could fill in for Belt, should he be delayed as anticipated. Today we’ll run through the favourites and what they stand to offer in Belt’s stead:
The immediate player that comes to mind is the Giants’ latest acquisition Tommy La Stella, who signed a three-year, $18.75 million deal on 4 February. This is the longest contract the Giants have committed to any player under Farhan Zaidi, the club’s President of Baseball Operations. Zaidi was keen to secure his man and big things are expected of La Stella by the Bay.
The versatile infielder can basically play anywhere on the diamond and is likely to see a great deal of playing time with the Giants, as an everyday starter or as part of a platoon. His first job will likely be covering first base in Belt’s absence, and even though first base is not considered La Stella’s usual home, he can easily fill in there. The 32-year-old New Jersey native has spent the past two years on the West Coast, sharing his time between the Angels and Athletics, before becoming a free agent this offseason. He should feel right at home in San Francisco, returning to California once more.
In those two years La Stella has blossomed into a fine player, earning an All-Star appearance in 2019. Over the course of those 549 appearances La Stella has contributed decent power with 21 home runs, a strong and consistent .289/.356/.471 slashline (BA/OBP/SLG), with a .827 OPS and 122 OPS+ for good measure. What most appealed to the Giants may lie in La Stella’s incredible plate discipline. You don’t find many modern players who walk more than they strike out but La Stella is part of that elite club, with 47 walks to 40 strikeouts in the last two seasons. In 2020 his strikeout percentage (SO/PA) was a miniscule 5.3% (per Fangraphs). Opposition pitchers are going to have a tough time getting La Stella to swing and miss.
La Stella bats from the left side of the plate just like Belt does, and makes the new addition a natural replacement in the Giants’ lineup, retaining the balance Kapler will want to establish. It may be a temporary solution at first (no pun intended), but one can already envision the position becoming a regular spot for La Stella as time goes on.
It’s an internal argument I can have in my head all day long, but I definitely feel a strong case for Wilmer Flores being the player I most enjoyed watching on the 2020 Giants roster.
His first season in San Francisco was enormously successful and despite being a second baseman by nature, the 29-year-old Venezuelan played his fair share of first base, which makes him an ideal candidate to spell Belt until his return. Flores revelled in the new confines of Oracle Park and rediscovered the boom in his bat; Flores led the 2020 Giants in home runs with 12 dingers, on par with the likes of Christian Yelich and Cody Bellinger.
A right-handed hitter who performs well against lefty pitchers (he batted .324 against lefties at home in 2020), Flores isn’t quite as impactful against right-handers, a career .265 hitter. That doesn’t make him a liability by any means but I’m sure the Giants are already looking at platoon options to maximise Flores’ output. They’re going to need to be creative, now that Flores can’t play as a DH. The expectation that the designated hitter won’t return to the National League in 2021 will come as a significant blow to Flores. He featured as the Giants’ DH in over a third of his appearances in 2020 and was a mainstay in the lineup thanks to the peculiar rule adjustment.
With La Stella and Donovan Solano considered the superior fielders at second base, opportunities for Flores to get regular starts this year will be thinner. His future at first base looks more likely than ever before. Beyond whatever playing time Flores receives while Belt is recovering from surgery, sharing first base with Belt on a more regular basis is a definite possibility as the season progresses. Thankfully Flores is more than capable of supplying the Giants with the production they value.
The final candidate that warrants consideration is Buster Posey, the Giants’ longest-tenured player. Entering his 14th year as a professional after being drafted fifth overall by San Francisco in the 2008 MLB Draft, Posey will be focused firmly on returning to his daily catching duties in 2021. However, the veteran backstop has spent time at first base in the past, on days when former manager Bruce Bochy would grant Posey some respite from the toll catching had on his body. It’s not a surprise that Posey is an option at the position until Belt returns full-time.
I expect Posey to feature at first base sporadically this season but I think it’s unlikely he’ll be seriously considered over La Stella and Flores as Belt’s temporary substitute. This is purely on the basis that Posey’s unique talents would be wasted at first base, and the Giants are a far better team with Posey calling the game behind the plate, guiding the pitching staff the way he knows how.
The Giants’ 2020 season proved this beyond doubt; San Francisco would have secured their place in the playoffs with Posey at catcher. I recently looked at the impact Posey can have upon his return to the Giants, after he opted out of the 2020 season in the interests of protecting his family amid the concerns surrounding Covid-19. It’s one of the things I’m most excited about this season, and I can’t wait to see Posey back on the field. However, I think he’ll be in full catcher’s gear more often than not, with his first baseman’s mitt stored safely in his locker.
Ultimately, of the three options considered, I think La Stella will be first choice to fill in for Belt, until the two-time World Series winner can return on a daily basis. Getting La Stella into the lineup as often as possible will be key to the Giants’ success in 2021, and the opportunity to give him consistent starts is too tempting to turn down.
Ash Day is covering the San Francisco Giants as part of the growing team of writers at Bat Flips and Nerds. Follow him on Twitter @AshDay29