Jed Hoyer was never going to say anything explicit and useful about Cody Bellinger’s impending free agency and the Chicago Cubs’ plans for it. If you went into yesterday’s season-ending presser expecting a news drop on that front, you were undoubtedly disappointed.
Which isn’t to say Hoyer didn’t touch on the subject at all. It’s just that he mostly said what you expected, with maybe the only bit of “news” being his confirmation that this thing is not going to play out any time soon.
“We sat down with him on Sunday and had a long conversation,” Hoyer said. “We’ve had really good dialogue throughout the whole year. He loves Wrigley Field and he loves the fans. I think his experience was fantastic and our experience with him was fantastic. We’d love to bring him back. We’ll have a lot of conversations with him. Obviously, it’s a process, and that process does not start now. It’s going to play out for a while …. I do think the contributions he made will have to be replaced. We’d love to bring him back. In a world where that’s somewhat uncertain, we do have to figure out a way to replace that offensively.”
In other words, the Cubs know they need Bellinger’s offense – or some facsimile of it from someone(s) else – but they can’t count on definitely re-signing him, soon or eventually. It’s going to be a many months thing, not a many weeks thing. And in the interim, who knows what else happens for the Cubs that alters the trajectory of their offseason?
In other-other words, even though the Cubs have this exclusive period to negotiate with Bellinger before he’s officially a free agent after the World Series, and even though they will then get to make him a Qualifying Offer to buy a little more time, nobody expects a deal to get done before Bellinger and his agent Scott Boras get a fulllllll opportunity to explore free agency. Remember: that was the entire point of Bellinger signing his one-year deal with the Cubs.
For what it’s worth, recently, ESPN’s Jesse Rogers said on Kap and J. Hood that he thinks Bellinger ultimately goes elsewhere in free agency. In a couple of appearances, Rogers pointed to the need out there from other teams that are going to act more desperately and maybe overpay, the Cubs’ lack of major deals with Boras clients, the likelihood that the Cubs go the trade route for a big bat, the presence of Pete Crow-Armstrong in center field (which could push Bellinger to first and make him a very expensive first baseman), and the “risk, reward, and maxing out the use of your dollars.”
But, like Hoyer said, Rogers underscored that the Cubs would have to make up for the loss of that bat, one way or another. Or the offseason will merit significant criticism. You can’t just let Bellinger walk and not improve the offense in other ways.
For my part, I think two things are true, as they often are for top free agents: I’d love to have Cody Bellinger back on the Cubs, and I also think there is a reason to be thoughtful about the shape of contracts that make sense when you (hate it or not) have a budget.
I sussed out the comps on Bellinger earlier this year, and you can see a range of AAVs from $20 million to $30 million for which there’s an argument, and a range of guarantees from $140 to $250 million for which there’s an argument. It’s kind of a chasm, and at the low end of those ranges, it’s a “OMG PLEASE BRING HIM BACK” response, and on the high end of those ranges, it’s a “I think maybe there are better ways to use those resources to maximize the overall team.”
Bellinger is still so young and can still play exceptional defense in center field (while seamlessly moving to first base when needed, including in-game – so valuable). He has monster seasons in his career, and he put up great numbers this past season. Any and every team wants that guy. The questions are whether the defense regresses in center field, as it does for so many outfielders once they reach age 30-ish. Whether Bellinger is a pure first baseman within a couple years. Whether he keeps putting up offensive numbers that are commensurate with first base. Whether the contract he’d sign today suddenly looks like an albatross in a couple years if he becomes only an average bat at first base. Whether the batted ball metrics from this year scare you. Whether the injury issues scare you. So on and so forth.
This is a discussion that will play out over the next several months, as Hoyer said. I don’t think there’s a resolution coming soon. We have plenty of time to debate the merits, and also figure out just how aggressive Bellinger and Boras are going to be with their asks.