OK, I know all the jokes will be about Jon Heyman’s Aaron Judge whiff, but this one appears to be real. The Chicago Cubs are getting Cody Bellinger.
More soon, but you know the fit: the glove in center is fantastic, the potential for lefty power is badly needed, and there’s a chance that you can bounce back a 27-year-old former MVP to something above average at the plate.
This is great news, even if you have to keep the context of his disastrous last two years in mind, and set expectations accordingly.
UPDATE: This price tag sounds exactly right, just below what Bellinger was expected to get in arbitration from the Dodgers:
We explored Bellinger early in the offseason as a fit for the Cubs:
To that end, a pretty intriguing option could soon be available: Dodgers 1B/OF Cody Bellinger. He’s left-handed, he (used to) hit for loads of power, and he can cover center field or first base with ease (which is a pretty rare defensive combination).
Of course, WHY Bellinger could become available is really the whole story with him. His journey has been complicated, and as of now, the Dodgers control his future. So let’s dig in a bit to see what happened to him, if he’ll even be available, and if the Cubs should consider a pursuit.
What’s Going on With Cody Bellinger?
At one point, Bellinger, 27, was on a path for greatness, breaking into the league at 21-years-old and dominating from Day 1.
2017 (age-21): 548 PAs, 39 HRs, 138 wRC+, 3.9 WAR*
2018 (age-22): 632 PAs, 35 HRs, 120 wRC+, 3.8 WAR
2019 (age-23): 660 PAs, 47 HRs, 161 wRC+, 7.7 WAR**
*All-Star, NL Rookie of the Year
**All-Star, NL MVP, Gold Glover, Silver Slugger
And he did all that while splitting time between left, right, center field, and first base. An incredible start to his career.
Unfortunately, in nearly 1200 plate appearances since 2019, Bellinger has just 41 HRs, posted a dreadful 78 wRC+, and has been worth just 2.3 WAR, almost entirely from his defense. He’s dealt with injuries to his shoulder, calf, fibula, and rib cage. And he was just benched in a playoff game against the Padres, even when facing a righty.
Speaking of which (via Fabian Ardaya):
“Q: What was your conversation with Cody Bellinger like, and how did he take not being in the lineup today?
Dave Roberts: He was upset. He was upset. He wanted to be in there. He expected to be in there. All year long I’ve played him against right-handed pitching, and he wanted to be in there … But in this particular moment, with all the information I have, with what I’ve seen recently, I had to make a difficult decision, and I feel that Chris Taylor deserves an opportunity to start two games in a row….”
There were some compliments sprinkled into that response, but they were token. Bellinger, at 27, was simply not good enough to face even right-handed pitching in the postseason.
So what exactly happened to Bellinger? That’s a difficult question to answer.
At Prospects Live, Tieran Alexander put himself on the case, suggesting that Bellinger’s fractured fibula led to a minor, compensatory tweak to his mechanics from which he never recovered. In short, it looks like Bellinger has deployed a slightly wider stance with a rotated left foot to take some weight off his previously injured leg, which created bad habits and reduces the power potential on every swing. He may also be shifting his weight sooner, hurting his ability to keep up with velocity and dinging his point of contact (which also hurts the power output). There’s much more to it than that, but the bottom line is that the leg injury — not the oft-cited dislocated shoulder — appears to be the main culprit. Or at least the swing mechanics that got blown up because of it.
The upshot there is that, now healthy for a good long while, maybe you believe Bellinger is just a mechanical tweak away from returning to form. But are the Dodgers willing to take that gamble? Maybe not.
Now it’ll be the Cubs trying to help Bellinger get back on track offensively.
You should know the drill by now: Bellinger has been sufficiently bad the last two years – because of a jacked up swing – that you cannot count on even an average bat. But you can HOPE for much more than that, and you can EXPECT a really good glove in center field (and 1B).
“There are no bad one-year deals.”
That principle is pretty well exemplified by this signing. The Cubs have long-term options coming in the outfield. But for 2023, they can afford to take a one-year chance on Bellinger. The worst case ain’t all that bad, and the best case could help transform the lineup. Well, with a lot more help yet to come this offseason.
Oh, and a bonus on this deal? If Brennen Davis were to get healthy and show he’s ready? Bellinger can play first base if he’s hitting. Or if Matt Mervis is the one who breaks out? Well, Bellinger just keeps on playing first base. Realistically, he’s not going to block anyone no matter what.
(And hey, if Bellinger blows up this year, he’ll get a Qualifying Offer from the Cubs after the season, and they can net a nice draft pick in the process!)