Why a Brandon Belt for Danny Duffy trade may make sense for the Royals

For the most part, I have been pretty underwhelmed by most of the “hot stove” stories floating on the internet regarding the Royals. Mike Matheny as manager? No thanks. Kyle Schwarber and Jackie Bradley in the outfield in 2020? The Royals should definitely pass.

However, one rumor that has jumped out at me came from Around the Foghorn, a San Francisco Giants blog. ATF blogger Joe Reuter suggested that the Giants trade Brandon Belt and prospects for longtime Royals starter Danny Duffy.

The trade should be interesting for Royals fans in a couple of ways. First, Belt solves the first base issue in Kansas City, as Ryan O’Hearn and Cheslor Cuthbert failed to offer much at the position in 2019. Second, the trade also allows the Royals to get out of the Duffy contract, which is troublesome since Duffy’s future as a starter is in doubt for he struggled through injury once again (Duffy pitched only 130 innings, his lowest total since 2013). The Giants rotation was a mess last year beyond Madison Bumgarner (who may go elsewhere in free agency), as they ranked second-to-last in the league in WAR, according to Fangraphs. Even though Duffy has his question marks, he would probably fit the Giants’ needs better than the Royals, who need to clear space in the rotation with a lot of promising arms coming up from the minors that are set to debut in 2020 (most likely Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar).

Now, many may question why the Royals would be interested in Belt, who has a good chunk of money left on his deal (two years, $34.4 million, so roughly $17 million per year), and hasn’t really stood out as an offensive first baseman, especially when it comes to power (he’s never hit more than 18 home runs in a season and his ISO was .160 and .169 the past two seasons). Furthermore, Royals fans may question the idea of losing Duffy, who’s one of the last remnants of the Royals 2014 and 2015 seasons.

However, when Royals fans look at the bigger picture, one will realize that not only would Belt be a solid fit at the first base position for the next couple of years in Kansas City, but trading Duffy would give the Royals some flexibility in the rotation, and may be a better personal option for Duffy considering where he is in his career.

Why Belt makes sense in Kansas City

If you look at batting average alone, it’ s very easy to dismiss Belt. In fact, most Giants fans have, as Belt has never really developed consistent fanfare in San Francisco despite being the primary first baseman since 2012 (he played 63 games in 2011), and helping the Giants to two championships in the process. After posting a .275 batting average in 2016, Belt has posted averages of .241, .253, and .234 from 2017-2019. Those numbers certainly didn’t inspire the Black and Orange faithful, and it may be difficult to sway the Blue and White faithful in Kansas City as well.

However, while Belt’s batting average leaves much to be desired, Belt still gives a productive skill set that should be much welcomed in Kansas City. Even though he only hit .234 and posted a wOBA of .319 last year, he still performed better than O’Hearn, who posted a .195 average and .278 wOBA with the Royals in 2019. Furthermore, while his peripheral numbers regressed, he actually improved skill-wise as a hitter in 2019, especially when it came to plate discipline. Belt improved his walk rate (13.5 percent a 3 percent increase from 2018) and cut down on the strikeouts (from 23.5 percent to 20.6 percent in 2019) despite seeing more at-bats (456 in 2018 to 616). Thus, it seems promising that Belt, with his more disciplined approach, could be more successful in 2020, especially if he can improve that .275 BABIP, which was the second lowest percentage in his career (his lowest was .273, which came in his debut season).

What makes Belt an interesting fit in Kansas City is that he will be moving from a park that saps left-handed power to a park that saps left-handed power a little less. Both Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City and Oracle Park are known to be pitcher-friendly parks, but Oracle is especially brutal on left-handed hitters. According to Baseball Prospectus, Oracle had a HR factor of 80 for LHB, and a run total of 90 for LHB, the worst and second-lowest marks in those categories, respectively. Thus, it’s no surprise that Belt posted a wRC+ of 97 at Oracle and a 100 wRC+ on the road.

While Kauffman is tough on right-handed hitters when it comes to home runs (toughest HR factor for RHB at 83), it is actually a lot friendlier to lefties, which would benefit Belt immediately. When it comes to HR factor, Kauffman Stadium posted a 93, which ranks 13th overall, and it posted a 105 run factor in 2019, which was the seventh-highest run factor in baseball overall. Considering Belt actually hit the ball harder in 2019 than 2018, according to Baseball Savant (his hard hit percentage went from 31.6 in 2018 to 35.8 percent in 2019), it’s plausible to think that Belt will see an uptick in his slash line with the move from the pitcher-friendly parks of the Oracle and the NL West (with the exception of Coors Field) to the more hitter-friendly confines of Kauffman and the AL Central (Detroit, Chicago, and Minnesota all profile as more friendly toward left-handed hitters; only Cleveland profiled as tough for left-handed hitters). In fact, when you watch him swing (as profiled in this video below), it’s easy to see Belt’s hitting translate to the American League in 2020.

Will Belt be a building block for the future for the Royals? Absolutely not. It’s easy to see Belt as a stopgap for these next two years until a first-base prospect in the system rises to the top (though that’s hard to imagine right now after Nick Pratto’s struggles). Furthermore, after next season, Belt could be a possible trade chip, which Moore could flip for prospects if the Royals aren’t contending. That kind of flexibility makes Belt a valuable asset to the Royals if acquired.

Does that mean the future is done for “Brohearn” in KC? Maybe not just yet, as the Royals would be foolish the release a player who is still two years away from arbitration. Furthermore, O’Hearn is good insurance, should Belt get hurt (Belt has had issues with staying healthy in SF). However, O’Hearn needs to take a major step forward in 2020 if he wants to prove that he’s more than a September Call-Up wizard from two seasons ago. His approach is in need of some help of course, as he posted a swinging strike percentage over 10 percent, and according to Baseball Savant Swing-Take data, he cost the Royals 21 runs in 2019. That is hard to stomach, and even though Belt was below average for the Giants in 2019 in this category, he was 19 runs BETTER than O’Hearn, which puts in perspective how rough O’Hearn’s 2019 was in Kansas City, and why the Royals may need to upgrade.

Why Duffy makes sense for the Giants

It will be hard to imagine Duffy not in a Royals uniform in 2020. After all, he is one of the last remaining relics of the 2014-2015 glory years that made the Royals relevant again not just in Kansas City, but on a national level. However, while Duffy still has two years on the contract he signed after the 2016 season, and showed some improvement from a brutal 2018 season, it may be time for Duffy to start afresh with a new club.

First off, the Giants rotation needs help this off-season, especially if their top pitcher, Madison Bumgarner, leaves in free agency. While they will be in the hunt for Gerrit Cole this off-season, the Giants have not necessarily done well when it comes to free agent pitchers the past few seasons. While Johnny Cueto started well, he has struggled through injury, and his future is in doubt after missing the most of the past two seasons. Derek Holland and Drew Pomeranz are also examples of pitchers who failed to live up to their contracts during their time in the Bay Area. Hence, the Giants need to find some affordable options that can also have an impact on the rotation for the next year or two.

Duffy certainly fits that criteria for the Giants.

First off, Duffy’s contract is reasonable for the Giants’ standards. With around $31 million left over two years, that is a drop in the bucket for a club that has consistently been in the top 5-10 when it comes to biggest payrolls in baseball over the last decade. Second, Duffy may be the best Giants starter immediately. Last year, after Bumgarner (3.5 WAR), the Giants’ best starter was Jeff Samardzija, who had a WAR of 1.5. Duffy’s WAR in 2019 was 1.3, which would make him the third best starter on the Giants rotation. While the Giants look to have some promise with Logan Webb, Tyler Beede, and Shaun Anderson, they certainly were knocked around in their debut seasons in San Francisco, and are far from dependable options for the Giants. Hence, Duffy would add some assurance to the Giants rotation, and could be a mentor to those young arms that will be looking to improve in year two in the big leagues.

Lastly, Duffy’s skill set may play better in San Francisco and the NL West then in the AL Central. Duffy’s HR/FB percentage spiked from 11 percent to 13.5 percent from 2018 to 2019. Unfortunately, Duffy will always be vulnerable to fluctuations in this percentage due to him being a flyball pitcher. Last year his GB/FB ratio was 0.86, and it has been over 1 only once in his career (2015). Thus for Duffy to succeed, he needs to be in parks that favor the pitcher when it comes to flyballs, and Oracle park fits the mold, as it is even more arduous than Kauffman when it comes to hitting the ball out. Plus, with the added benefit of getting to face a pitcher in the batting order, it seems like moving to the National League would be a seamless fit for Duffy, who could start fresh and continue to be a starter in a situation where he could get a shot at the postseason (the NL West really is up for grabs beyond first place, which means a possible Wild Card spot; the Dodgers have a stranglehold on the Division but everyone else is around the same level of competitiveness).

Closing thoughts on this possible scenario

Without a doubt, Kansas City would be taking in more money on this deal, as Belt makes about two million more per year than Duffy. If the Royals trade for Belt, you can almost guarantee that the Royals won’t be getting any other position players in free agency, though I think Moore and new Royals ownership would still reserve money for some rotation help.

Despite him being more expensive than Duffy, Belt would bring some stability and consistency to the first base position, which the Royals haven’t had since Eric Hosmer left for San Diego after the 2016 season. He provides good defense, he gets on base, and I imagine his power would fit better in Kauffman than in Oracle, which means that Belt could have a career year in Kansas City if he makes his way yonder to the Midwest. Furthermore, since the Royals would be taking on more money, they could add more prospects to their system from the Giants, which would add much needed depth to a system that is slowly getting more and more flush with talent the past couple of seasons.

Yes, losing Duffy would be bittersweet. I have become a big fan of Duffman the past couple of years, and he has always been a solid citizen in and out of the clubhouse for the Royals. Furthermore, he brought some memorable non-baseball moments, as Royals fans fondly remember below.

If he stays in Kansas City, most Royals fans (including myself) would be happy, since I think he is due for a stronger season in 2019, as long as he can stay healthy (though that is a big “if”). Furthermore, if he stays in the Royals Blue and White, I could also see him mentoring pitchers like Singer and Kowar when they debut at some point in 2020, being the mentor to them that James Shields was to him back in 2013 and 2014.

That being said, the Royals need to improve in a lot of different areas in 2020, and Belt provides a pathway for the Royals to do that offensively. While I’m not throwing the towel in on O’Hearn, it would be surprising to see O’Hearn be more than what he currently is: a low average, somewhat decent OBP, streaky hitter, who can get hot at times, but is not consistent enough to justify regular at-bats at the Major League level. With Belt, the Royals will get that consistency at first base, even though it wouldn’t come in a sexy fashion.

I know Royals fans may hate the fact that we will be adding a former Giant to the roster. But if the Royals want to see improvement on the field, and in a fashion that won’t jeopardize the long-term future, then trading Duffy for Belt and prospects may be the best avenue to do so this off-season.

It’ll be interesting to see if Belt has a bear suit himself.

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