With Belt gone, Giants have high hopes for a healthy Wade Jr.


SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- LaMonte Wade Jr.'s second at-bat of the spring provided a familiar sight for the Giants gathered on the top step of the dugout. Wade stayed on an elevated pitch and drove a low liner over the wall in left-center, and as he rounded first, he quickly turned and glanced at first base coach Antoan Richardson. 

It's a celebration Wade did 18 times in 2021, when he was the breakout offensive star of a stunning overall season. It's one that was mostly missing from the 2022 season, which was perhaps more disappointing for Wade than anyone else.

Never healthy, Wade played in just 77 games last year, batting .207 with an OPS+ that was 29 points worse than in 2021. The Giants responded by doubling down.

Brandon Belt was allowed to depart for the Toronto Blue Jays and president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi did not bring in a replacement. He said all offseason that it was Wade's time at first base. When asked early in camp who he was excited to see this spring, manager Gabe Kapler smiled. 

"I'm excited to see LaMonte," he said quickly. "Look, LaMonte has had a very focused offseason. He's been very driven, self-motivated, locked in on his own. Nobody is pushing him, he's just done all the right things without a lot of fanfare."

The transition from Buster Posey to Joey Bart was the talk of camp last spring. Whenever Brandon Crawford hangs them up, his successor will be under a bright spotlight. But the move from Belt to Wade has gone somewhat under the radar. 

The biggest first base story of the spring thus far has been Joc Pederson getting reps there, but on Opening Day at Yankee Stadium, the plan is for it to be Wade at first base. If all goes according to plan, he'll be the starter against right-handed pitching, meaning he'll be the Giants' primary first baseman. 

Asked about the big change, Wade said the first thing that comes to mind is how much he'll miss Belt. 

"Brandon taught me a lot on and off the field," he said. "I still talk to him all the time, actually. But I think it shows that they believe in me to be able to take this next step and I'm looking forward to the challenge."

Wade is able to attack the new role because he's finally healthy. While his left knee seemed to first give out late last March while he was running the bases, he said the issue actually goes back to 2021. He started to feel discomfort late in that season but was unable to get the proper treatment or guidance in the offseason because of the lockout. 

"I wasn't really too surprised that the knee blew out when it did," he said. "Honestly, I thought it was going to be a little sooner than that. It definitely derailed the season for me physically and mentally, but you just flush it. I'm healthy now and I feel way better than I ever have. I think I need to stay on top of everything I need to do physically and mentally and I'll be alright."

Wade went into last offseason thinking he might need surgery, and some of the doctors he visited recommended it. But the surgery would have included a lengthy layoff, and when he was told he could rehab instead, he chose that path. Starting the week after he returned to Maryland, he rehabbed three days a week, strengthening his quad and hamstring muscles to take pressure off of his knee. 

As a result, the Giants have seen a new version of Wade this spring. Or maybe just the old version. 

"LaMonte's most notable struggles last year were about him just not being as healthy as he wanted to be, as we wanted him to be," Kapler said. "I think just fine-tuning his health and physical condition makes him an immediately better baseball player."

Wade has felt a big difference this spring. 

"I like to sit in my legs when I hit," he said. "I sat in my legs all of 2021. To be able to go from staying in your legs and using your lower half, which is my stronger half, to standing straight up, it's not going to be a good result. You try to manipulate your swing up top to compensate for down low, but if one half of your swing isn't able to work, the rest of it isn't going to work, either. 

"It does feel good to come in here and be able to sit in my legs and go out here from day one and participate and do everything how I want to do it. I'm looking forward to it."

The Giants saw in 2021 what a healthy Wade can bring to their everyday lineup. He posted a .808 OPS and hit 18 homers in just 336 at-bats, with so many of them coming in clutch spots that LaMonte Wade Jr. quickly became Late Night LaMonte. 

Having that version of Wade in the late innings will be helpful, but the Giants aren't planning for him to sit around waiting for a big moment. The goal is for Wade to replace Belt, which is a particularly tall task on defense. 

While Belt was slowed by his own knee issues in recent years, he was still as good around the bag as any first baseman in the league, and he always knew what the right read was. Kapler doesn't expect Wade to emulate Belt. He expects him to simply be a different, but perhaps equally effective, version. 

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Wade played first base in college and has 58 appearances there in the big leagues. While last year was a struggle in every respect, he looked like an above-average defender at times when Belt got hurt in 2021. 

Wade is not your traditional 6-foot-4 first baseman with long arms, but in 2023, he doesn't need to be. The new restrictions on shifts mean an emphasis on lateral movement, and the Giants are confident that an athletic and healthy Wade -- who has spent most of his career running around the outfield -- can be a good first baseman. 

"I think LaMonte has a chance to be pretty rangy," Kapler said. "He moves laterally really well and he's a fairly gifted athlete, so I think he has a chance to be rangy. He has naturally really good hands. He's an accurate thrower. It's not a physical package that you're like, 'Gosh, that jumps off the page athletically.' But he's plenty capable."

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