An unheralded fifth-round pick in the 2009 draft, Belt emerged onto the prospect scene in 2010 after crushing High-A and Double-A pitching in his first professional season. He followed suit in 2011 in Triple-A, forcing his way to San Francisco by midseason. That's when the #FreeBelt movement started, as the Baby Giraffe received just 472 PA in 2012 despite hitting .275/.360/.421, hinting at promising power and boasting an 11.4 percent walk rate.
Belt was subsequently liberated in 2013, hitting .289/.360/.481 in 571 PA, finishing as fantasy's 16th-best first baseman. Given that Belt was entering his age-26 season this year, there was legitimate reason for optimism. His average draft position was no. 137 overall, according to fantasypros.com, and it wasn't totally unreasonable to project Belt for a top-12 finish at the position, if everything broke right.
What Went Right in 2014
Half of Belt's thumbs made it through the season without breaking.
What Went Wrong in 2014
So many things. An errant Paul Maholm pitch broke one of Belt's thumbs in May, and that kept him on the DL until July. Shortly after returning, Belt was nailed by a Marco Scutaro warmup throw, concussing him and leading to two separate DL stints, effectively ending his regular season.
Even when he was healthy, Belt wasn't very good. He ended up hitting .243/.306/.449 in 235 PA, and while he hit 12 homers, showcasing an uptick in power production, his strikeout rate also soared and his walk rate declined. Belt's line drive percentage fell from 24.3 percent in 2013 to just 18.0 percent, while he saw moderate spikes in his ground and fly ball percentages and a significant uptick in his infield fly ball percentage, too.
Overall, Belt finished as the 50th-best fantasy first baseman and the 473rd-best player in standard 5×5 leagues. That's not what you were hoping for if you grabbed Belt in the first 13-or-so rounds of your draft, and Belt's performance probably screwed over a lot of keeper and dynasty league owners looking for production at first base, too.
What to Expect in 2015
This isn't the answer you're seeking for from a fantasy advice column, but … it's pretty tough to predict. If you're a glass-half-empty type, you can argue that Belt shouldn't be viewed as a top-16 first baseman headed into 2015. He's never hit for power and a decent average at the same time, he doesn't play in a favorable home ballpark, he added a lot of swing-and-miss to his game in 2014 and his regression in the patience department is pretty concerning.
If you've been blessed with a keener sense of optimism, you can write off his 2014 performance as largely due to injury. In fact, you can even choose to be encouraged by his uptick in power, as he'd threaten for 25 homers if you extrapolate his line to about 600 PA.
This is a boring answer, but I think you're best off taking the middle road for 2015. It's okay to count on him as a corner infielder, but don't buy in on him as your bargain starting first baseman, either. There's probably a version of Brandon Belt that can hit .280/.360/.475, but there's another version who could miss more time with concussion troubles and produce a vastly inferior triple-slash line.
The Great Beyond
2015 is a pivotal year for Belt. He certainly deserves to be given another chance to cement himself as the Giants' first baseman, and there's a very good chance he'll take the job and run with it if healthy. If his patience from past years returns and his power from last year is real, we're looking at a borderline top-12 performer who can hit .280 with 20-plus homers on a regular basis.
In dynasty leagues, you really have no choice but to hold on to Belt. You don't want to sell low on him, and he has the potential to make you look smart for retaining in him. This is also a pretty good time to try and buy Belt, as the price is likely to be pretty reasonable and the rewards could be substantial.
The hard truth is that first base isn't as deep as it used to be. James Loney finished as a top-20 fantasy first baseman last year, and he hit .290/.336/.380 with just nine homers. Belt isn't ever going to play with the big boys at the position, but if he's healthy, the underlying skill is here for him to function between the 10-15 range for first baseman for many years.
And yes, I still prefer Eric Hosmer, which is how you know I have a problem.