Cody Bellinger Returns to the Cubs

Cody Bellinger Returns to the Cubs

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Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

For as strong as his 2023 campaign had been, and for as well positioned as he was in this winter’s market, Cody Bellinger‘s free agency was always hampered by questions of sustainability. His debut season with the Cubs followed two unsettlingly bad years with the Dodgers, and the metrics underlying last season’s resurgence were comparatively modest relative to his production, raising the possibility if not the likelihood of regression. In light of those issues, even as he placed third on our Top 50 Free Agents list heading into the offseason and reportedly sought a contract as high as $250 million, it seemed quite likely he’d come away with considerably less. He did, agreeing to return to the Cubs on a three-year, $80 million deal, one that contains opt-outs after the first two seasons, and one that was still pending a physical as of this writing.

Effectively, this is a pillow contract, negotiated by the agent who created the term, Scott Boras. The 28-year-old Bellinger will get the opportunity to show that his 2023 performance was no fluke, with two chances before his age-30 season to secure a much bigger payday. He’s guaranteed $30 million in 2024, with salaries of $30 million in ’25 and $20 million in ’26 if he hasn’t exercised his opt-outs, according to ESPN’s Jeff Passan.

Bellinger came to the Cubs after an eventful 10-year run in the Dodgers’ organization, one that began when the son of former utilityman Clay Bellinger was drafted in the fourth round out of an Arizona high school in 2013. He hit 39 home runs while winning NL Rookie of the Year honors in 2017, and smacked 47 homers two years later while taking home the NL MVP award. His timely hitting and spectacular fielding during the 2020 postseason helped the Dodgers to their first championship since 1988, but one of those timely hits precipitated his fall. Celebrating what proved to be the decisive home run in Game 7 of the 2020 NLCS against the Braves, the exuberant Bellinger dislocated his right (non-throwing) shoulder after bashing forearms with teammate Enrique Hernández. He underwent arthroscopic labrum surgery after the World Series, started slowly in spring training, and then in the fourth game of the season suffered a hairline fracture in his left fibula, knocking him out for eight weeks. Unable to find his rhythm as he recovered from both shoulder and leg issues, he hit a gruesome .165/.240/.302 (47 wRC+) with -1.0 WAR in 350 plate appearances, though he showed signs of life during the playoffs when he adopted a shortened swing with lower hand placement; he hit .353/.436/.471 (146 wRC+) across 39 plate appearances in 12 postseason games. While he got off to a solid start in 2022, he couldn’t maintain it despite endlessly tinkering with his swing. Exceptional defense in center field kept him in the lineup, but he hit just .210/.265/.389 (83 wRC+) with 1.8 WAR, and was nontendered following the season.

Less than three weeks later, Bellinger agreed to a one-year deal with the Cubs, one that paid him $12.5 million for 2023 with a $1 million bonus for winning NL Comeback Player of the Year honors (which he did) and a $5 million buyout on a $25 million mutual option for ’24. He declined his end of the option as well as the $20.325 million qualifying offer he received, and entered the market as the top free agent position player, behind only pitcher/designated hitter Shohei Ohtani and pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto on our list.

For Bellinger, last year’s change of scenery proved to be just what the doctor ordered. Reuniting with Cubs hitting coach Dustin Kelly and assistant Johnny Washington, both of whom he had worked with in the Dodgers’ system, Bellinger focused on adjusting his mechanics, particularly with regards to his hand placement and back hip, allowing him to use his lower body better. He further adapted his approach by pulling the ball with less frequency than at any time since his rookie season, and shortening his swing with two strikes to focus on contact. The result was his best season since 2019, as he hit .307/.356/.525 (134 wRC+) with 26 homers and 20 steals in 130 games — he missed nearly four weeks with a left knee contusion — while cutting his strikeout rate from 27.3% to 15.6%. Coupled with solid defense in center field, his 4.1 WAR tied for 20th in the NL and was the second-best showing of his career.

Bellinger’s intent is worth noting when digging into his underlying metrics, as he sacrificed some power in exchange for contact en route to the lowest exit velocity, barrel rate, and hard-hit rate of his career:

Cody Bellinger Statcast Profile

Season
BBE
EV
Barrel%
HardHit%
AVG
xBA
SLG
xSLG
wOBA
xwOBA

2017
337
90.8
11.6%
45.7%
.267
.254
.581
.540
.380
.365

2018
409
89.8
8.6%
38.1%
.260
.237
.470
.432
.345
.327

2019
454
91.1
12.6%
45.6%
.305
.319
.629
.635
.415
.430

2020
171
89.3
9.4%
41.5%
.239
.284
.455
.494
.337
.374

2021
224
89.3
7.1%
34.4%
.165
.209
.302
.358
.237
.281

2022
360
89.4
8.3%
38.1%
.210
.213
.389
.354
.284
.278

2023
424
87.9
6.1%
31.4%
.307
.270
.525
.434
.370
.327

Bellinger’s barrel rate placed in just the 27th percentile, his exit velo in the 22nd percentile, and his hard-hit rate in the 10th percentile. He outdid his expected slugging percentage by 91 points, and his expected wOBA by 43 points; both gaps ranked third in the majors among batting title qualifiers (502 PA). On the other hand, his .279 AVG and .312 wOBA with two strikes ranked second and seventh in the majors, thanks in large part to his consistency in collecting hits despite soft contact, a topic that MLB.com’s Mike Petriello and our own Esteban Rivera both investigated.

All of that created something of a puzzle for Bellinger’s suitors — most prominently the Blue Jays (considered the favorites to sign him as of mid-December) and Giants, with the Mariners and Yankees also connected to him via rumors. Bellinger’s deal always seemed unlikely to approach the hot air of the $200 million-plus Borasphere, but in our Top 50 exercise, Ben Clemens projected him to get a six-year, $150 million contract, and our crowdsource expected a six-year, $144 million one. Other outlets went even higher.

As the Blue Jays dragged their feet this winter, the Giants turned to Jung Hoo Lee, and the Cubs refused to act like a large-market team, Bellinger’s anticipated market never fully materialized, with the aforementioned issues undoubtedly playing a part, as well. By ZiPS, he did well to get as much as he did:

ZiPS Projection – Cody Bellinger

Year
BA
OBP
SLG
AB
R
H
2B
3B
HR
RBI
BB
SO
SB
OPS+
DR
WAR

2024
.267
.327
.441
487
80
130
24
2
19
73
44
92
14
108
3
2.7

2025
.262
.323
.427
485
78
127
24
1
18
72
44
91
13
103
3
2.3

2026
.263
.325
.425
475
76
125
24
1
17
69
44
89
11
103
3
2.3

ZiPS projects just a three-year, $70 million contract for that forecast, per Dan Szymborski, though perhaps that’s not surprising given that Bellinger has had just one good season out of the last three. Based on the percentile breakdowns, it appears the system gives him only about a 10% to 20% chance of matching or exceeding last year’s performance:

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Cody Bellinger

Percentile
2B
HR
BA
OBP
SLG
OPS+
WAR

95%
34
29
.317
.380
.544
146
5.2

90%
31
27
.304
.367
.520
137
4.6

80%
28
24
.291
.353
.498
127
4.0

70%
27
22
.282
.345
.478
122
3.5

60%
25
21
.274
.336
.465
115
3.1

50%
24
19
.267
.327
.441
108
2.7

40%
23
17
.257
.320
.429
102
2.2

30%
22
16
.250
.313
.415
97
1.9

20%
20
14
.241
.303
.400
90
1.4

10%
18
13
.228
.289
.374
82
0.8

5%
16
11
.221
.283
.357
74
0.3

Bellinger probably doesn’t have to match his 2023 numbers to justify opting out, and he does have two chances to decide when to enter the market again. Still, a mediocre 2024 followed by a strong ’25 would probably leave teams with similar questions to the ones they confronted this winter.

As for how he fits into the Cubs, the key word is flexibility. The team already had Ian Happ and Seiya Suzuki, both entering their age-29 seasons and on multi-year deals, set for the outfield corners. Prior to Bellinger’s re-signing, Pete Crow-Armstrong, the 20th-ranked prospect on our Top 100 list, appeared likely to take over as the Chicago’s regular center fielder. A 2020 first-round pick acquired from the Mets in the Javier Báez trade at the ’21 deadline, Crow-Armstrong hit a combined .283/.365/.511 (127 wRC+) in 73 games at Double-A Tennessee and 34 games at Triple-A Iowa. He went just 0-for-14 with three walks and two sacrifice hits in a cup of coffee with the Cubs, though to be fair, he started just three of the 13 games in which he appeared. He’s considered an elite center fielder who’s fearless on the basepaths and should produce at least average power. “If he can plug that hole over time, he’ll be a five-tool superstar,” wrote our prospect team of Eric Longenhagen and Tess Taruskin. “More likely, he’ll have some 20-25 homer seasons amid a ton of strikeouts and a low OBP, with peak years resembling Mike Cameron’s (though almost certainly not to that level of annual consistency).”

Given Crow-Armstrong’s age (he turns 22 on March 25) and modest amount of upper-level experience, it always seemed possible that he would start the season in the minors before rejoining the Cubs. Now it would appear even more likely. If he hits his way back to the majors in a hurry, the Cubs could use him in center field and play Bellinger at first base, where lefty-swinging rookie Michael Busch was slated to be the starter or at least the long half of a platoon with righty Patrick Wisdom. The 26-year-old Busch, no. 84 on our prospect list, is considered a bat-only prospect who last played first base regularly at North Carolina, and who may be better suited to DH duty. Alternately, Bellinger has experience in both left field (315.1 innings, though none since 2018) and right (989 innings, the bulk of them in 2019), and Happ has experience at every defensive position except shortstop and catcher, though he hasn’t played the infield since 2021, when he totaled 36 innings, mostly at second base. Also in the category of moving parts is Christopher Morel, who last year saw time at all three outfield positions plus second base, shortstop, and third base; he was projected to get the bulk of the work at DH but also to be in the third base mix along with Nick Madrigal. Suffice to say that new manager Craig Counsell will have options for how to piece his lineup together, and that a clearer picture may emerge during spring training.

Via our Depth Charts projections, here’s a comparison of how the situation looked before the signing and immediately after, in terms of estimated plate appearances:

Cody Bellinger and the Cubs’ Moving Parts

Player
Pre/Post-Signing
1B
3B
LF
CF
RF
DH
Total PA*

Bellinger
Post
280

245
98

623

Busch
Pre
308
91

49
469

Busch
Post
252
63

84
420

Crow-Armstrong
Pre

420

420

Crow-Armstrong
Post

350

350

Happ
Pre

623
42

665

Happ
Post

651
14

665

Madrigal
Pre

357

371

Madrigal
Post

294

301

Morel
Pre
35
49
35
14
21
378
553

Morel
Post

126
21
14
14
329
518

Suzuki
Pre

441
161
602

Suzuki
Post

406
182
588

Tauchman
Pre

21
203
147

371

Tauchman
Post

14
70
168

252

Wisdom
Pre
245
126
14

35
420

Wisdom
Post
133
182

357

* = includes plate appearances positions that may not be shown

In terms of overall playing time, the real loser of the Bellinger deal is Mike Tauchman, a capable center fielder who hit .252/.363/.377 (107 wRC+) last year, with Crow-Armstrong, Madrigal, and Wisdom also losing substantial time. Keep in mind that all of this is based on best guesses just as exhibition season has opened, and before the Cubs have even confirmed the deal. A lot could still change.

Particularly with the Cardinals, Brewers, Cubs, and Reds each projected to win between 79 and 85 games, the NL Central is expected to be a dogfight. Any impactful addition could be the difference between reaching the postseason — something the Cubs haven’t done since 2020 — and staying home. By bringing back Bellinger, the team has given itself a better shot at playing in October without assuming a huge long-term risk. Bellinger, for his part, gets to return to a comfortable situation with a contending team, while also knowing that he can play his way into a bigger contract. It will be fascinating to see how this all unfolds.

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