Bring me the Head of Brandon Belt (and the rest of him too, if possible)
By Kyle Matte
To say the Wednesday afternoon Blue Jays game was a horrific event to watch might be a bit of an understatement. The excitement of the Anthony Gose debut quickly wore off, as in the bottom of the first the Yankees sent eight men to the plate and scored four runs. Things actually managed to get worse in the bottom of the third, as in perhaps the lowest point in the season to date, Brett Lawrie went flying over a camera well railing, plummeting six feet to the concrete below. It eventually turned out that Lawrie suffered only a bruised calf, but for a good hour, the Blue Jays fan base was drowning in the tears of defeat.
Rather than sitting on my couch angry, frustrated, and begging for answers, I tuned in to TSN 1050 on my computer. Keith Law of ESPN had just tweeted he’d be coming on the show to talk Blue Jays, and that seemed like a much more enjoyable experience than the anguish the pitching staff was once again putting me through. The host asked Keith a number of questions about the team, including what the hell is wrong with Ricky Romero and whether the Blue Jays should be buyers or sellers at the deadline. What really caught my attention was when he started talking about Yunel Escobar, and who he saw as a viable trade partner. San Francisco Giants. Brandon Belt.
I was floored by the suggestion. I have never really been on the “trade Yunel” bandwagon, despite his dreadful offensive performance this year and the irritatingly constant reminders by Jon Morosi of Fox Sports that the team was looking to move him. He plays the most challenging defensive position in baseball, and in his sixth professional season, he’s already accumulated 18.6 WAR. Should he conclude the season the way ZIPS projects, that number will approach 20. He’s been remarkably consistent with his production as well, with totals of 2.6, 3.7, 4.4, 2.1, 4.3, and 2.6 WAR (projected). With 2 WAR being roughly the average regular, Yunel Escobar has been an above average player every season. Considering some of the awful shortstops the Blue Jays have fielded over the past decade – Royce Clayton, anyone – why would Toronto ever want to move him?
Brandon Belt instantly changes my opinion. The 6-foot-5 Texan was drafted in the fifth round of the 2009 draft, and quickly made short work of the minor leagues. He appeared on Baseball America’s top 100 only once, in 2011, placing 23rd overall after a .352/.455/.620 season. He split the year across three levels (High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A), and in his 136 games he hit 43 doubles, 10 triples, and 23 home runs. Showing surprising wheels for his size, he stole 22 bases. With an extremely disciplined plate approach, he walked 93 times against 99 strikeouts. Those are some crazy good numbers.
Belt bounced between Triple-A and the majors last year before finally settling into San Francisco this season. Settling might be too generous of a term, as he seems to be in and out of manager Bruce Bochy’s doghouse on a regular basis. The Giants have literally received a negative contribution from Brett Pill and Aubrey Huff, yet those two have stolen 156 plate appearances away from Belt at first base. It’s not unlike the Blue Jays decision to play Rajai Davis and Eric Thames over Travis Snider – frustrating for fans of the organization, and puzzling for outsiders looking in. In a Wednesday article by Andrew Baggarly of CSN, Bochy is quoted as saying:
"“I think it’s fair to say Brandon is a little lost right now,” Bochy said. “It’s timing and confidence again. I say this so many times: They’ll have their ups and downs, young players, and they have to learn to deal with it.”"
Apparently, in Bruce’s world, the easiest way for a young player to deal with confidence issues is to sit on the bench in favor of replacement level players. Sounds a lot like a certain ex-Blue Jays skipper, no?
The Escobar to Giants connection makes plenty of sense when you look at the numbers. At shortstop, San Francisco has sent out Brandon Crawford and Joaquin Arias for a combined 487 plate appearances, with the two totaling only 1.0 WAR. That number isn’t leaps and bounds behind Yunel Escobar to this point, but Escobar has produced 4+ WAR seasons twice in his career – including just last year – something neither Crawford nor Arias ever has the potential for. For a team like San Francisco, who currently rank first in their division and have a dynamite pitching staff, Escobar would be a huge boost both this season and in seasons ahead, thanks to his accommodating club options.
The Belt to the Blue Jays connection makes equal amount of sense if you neglect the Travis Snider fiasco. Alex Anthopolous has made a name for himself by targeting underutilized or underachieving players with big potential, and like Brandon Morrow, Escobar, and Colby Rasmus in years past, Brandon Belt fits the bill perfectly. He’s primarily a first baseman, but has also played a fair amount of left field in the past, so he has some defensive versatility. Adam Lind would be the primary road block for Belt in Toronto, and his current hot streak aside, that shouldn’t be too much of an obstacle. The team also has a built-in replacement for Escobar with Adeiny Hechavarria, and while that exchange would likely result in a decline in production, the potential of an unleashed Brandon Belt should make up for it, and then some.
Keith Law wasn’t specific when mentioning the dynamics of the hypothetical deal, but a 1-for-1 makes a lot of sense to me. Neither team would be inheriting a significant financial burden, and both players have risks attached. Would you trade Yunel Escobar for Brandon Belt? Would you trade Yunel Escobar at all?