What Cody Bellinger Free Agent Signing Means for Cubs

What Cody Bellinger signing means for Cubs originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

SAN DIEGO — As the Cubs continued their pursuit of a big-game shortstop Tuesday, they landed the kind of versatile, potentially high-upside hitter who could fill a critical role for a team trying to turn the corner after another multi-year tank job.

Or provide a valuable chip at the trade deadline if the upside hits but the team hits the skids.

That’s the intrigue that 2019 Dodgers MVP Cody Bellinger — the 27-year-old with 152 home runs and an outfield Gold Glove — brings to the 2023 Cubs after agreeing to a one-year, $17.5 million deal.

On the other side of that intrigue: The two-time All-Star has been a .193 hitter with a .611 OPS the last two seasons, prompting the 111-win Dodgers to release him last month rather than take him through a final winter of arbitration.

“That talent is still there,” Cubs general manager Carter Hawkins said. “Obviously as you look at our lineup next year and where some of the opportunities are to add a bat or to add a defender, centerfield is certainly one of the spots. First base is a spot that we’ve talked about as well. And we’re certainly always looking for left-handed hitting.”

Bellinger’s agent, Scott Boras, attributed Bellinger’s performance decline the last two years to the shoulder-dislocation he suffered celebrating a playoff home run in 2020 by forearm-bashing with a teammate. A few weeks later, he had surgery on that right (non-throwing) shoulder that he had dislocated multiple times during his career.

“The key thing for him is he has his strength back for the first time,” Boras said Tuesday, suggesting the first-year recovery period and then last winter’s labor lockout impacted Bellinger’s ability to fully regain strength. “So this offseason has been really great for him. He’s feeling much different than he did at the end of last season.”

But two years of poor production off one injury?

“Sometimes it’s the chicken or the egg,” Hawkins said. “The health first, and then sometimes that can lead to bad habits at the plate. Sometimes it’s just a mental thing. Sometimes just a change of scenery [makes a difference].”

Either way, it’s a low-risk deal for the Cubs, even at the relatively high price, given the short length of the deal and their ample payroll flexibility.

He also has the chance to fill at least two defensive needs for a team without a healthy, big-league, everyday center field option already in-house as well as bringing 262 career games of experience as a pretty good fielding first baseman.

And there’s not a team looking for hitting who couldn’t use a lefty bat capable of hitting, say, 39 or 47 home runs — as he did in two of his first three seasons.

“He’s good — I mean, former MVP,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “He’s got a track record of a lot of success and dynamic defense. He’s a really good fit from a perspective of it’s great defense, great base running and a left-handed bat with the potential to have an uptick offensively if that works out.”

If that works out, Bellinger:

— Firms up an outfield that already has $85 million Seiya Suzuki locked into right and newly ordained Gold Glove left fielder Ian Happ — a first-time All-Star in 2022 — in left.

— Gives the Cubs as regular an option at first as needed to help soften the big-league landing of 2022 breakout minor-leaguer Matt Mervis as the lefty slugger eyes a 2023 debut.

— Potentially provides the Cubs their most significant left-handed presence in the lineup since they booted Anthony Rizzo (2021 trade) and Kyle Schwarber (2020 non-tender) during their recent flurry of payroll-slashing-and-burning.

— And, again, what a flip guy to have at the deadline if the front office doesn’t fill enough of its other roster holes to compete.

Of course, all of that comes with the big qualifier of bouncing back to All-Star form — not to mention the fairly big price tag for one year.

But the key is that part about being only a one-year commitment for a team with enough payroll flexibility in the short run that the impact is closer to what $2 million or $3 million might have had in the seasons immediately preceding the pandemic.

Which means, they potentially fill multiple needs with one signing that doesn’t interfere with the laundry list of other, larger, bigger-ticket pursuits.

“It’s certainly been full-bore here over the last couple of days,” said Hawkins, whose front office remained heavily involved in the deep end of the shortstop market, actively working the starting pitching market and working on landing a catcher.

“I would expect that to be the same [heading into late Tuesday night].”

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