23 for ’23: Will Cody Bellinger return to his MVP-caliber form?
Between position battles, roster additions and new rules, there are plenty of questions surrounding the 2023 Cubs. We attempt to provide answers for 23 of the most intriguing questions heading into the season.
MESA, Ariz. — Cody Bellinger didn’t just walk through the door when he made his big-league debut.
No, he burst through and cemented himself as one of the top players in the game, winning the NL Rookie of the Year in 2017 and winning the NL MVP in 2019. In that span, he hit 111 home runs, had a .928 OPS and a 144 OPS+, 44 percentage points above league average.
But, for as successful as those years were, his last three years have been just as difficult. He’s hit 41 home runs, posted a .203 average and a 74 OPS+ in that span. The Cubs signed the 27-year-old with the hope that a change of scenery and being reunited with a pair of familiar faces in hitting coach Dustin Kelly and assistant hitting coach Johnny Washington can benefit him.
“It was a solid transition,” Bellinger said earlier in camp. “It’s been a solid, solid start to the year. I’m enjoying the process. I’m enjoying coming to the ballpark every day. So, it’s been really fun.”
Belli 💣 pic.twitter.com/GmSGH7tKTq— Marquee Sports Network (@WatchMarquee) March 16, 2023
But does that automatically translate into the Cubs having a NL MVP contender in the middle of their lineup? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean the Cubs won’t be getting a valuable player.
For the Cubs, that starts on the defensive end. Last season, the Cubs were tied with the Pirates for the worst team defensively in center field, per Statcast’s Outs Above Average, at -7. Bellinger was tied for the 8th best OAA among center fielders with 7. For a team predicated on pitching and defense, having that kind of a boost, especially to a crucial position on the diamond, is vital.
But offensively, the Cubs are hoping he can make improvements on his 2022 numbers (.210/.265/.389 with 19 home runs). If he can do that, that provides a left-handed power bat in the middle of the Cubs’ lineup, something they really haven’t had over the last season. Ian Happ had 15 home runs from the left side and Rafael Ortega was the next closest with 7.
It’s Spring Training and a small sample size, but half of Bellinger’s hits have been for extra-base hits and he has 2 home runs (1 of them in an exhibition against Canada).
“I think I’m right where I wanna be,” Bellinger said. “I’ve been feeling really good at the plate, seeing the ball well, taking some good swings … Feeling good and confident.”
Any tweaks or adjustments that Bellinger are working on aren’t going to be overnight — it was unrealistic to think that immediately in Spring Training all his swing mechanics and adjustments would be fixed and he’d be hitting at a high clip. It’s a work in progress, one the Cubs hope and think can lead to a middle-of-the-order, left-handed bat that they’ve been missing.
“I think from the first day to today, there’s been improvements,” Bellinger said. “Obviously you need at-bats to make the right adjustments, the correct adjustments.”
23 for ’23 series
What will the Cubs’ new era at catcher look like?
What is the Cubs’ plan at third base?
Who steps up in the wake of the Seiya Suzuki injury?
What role will Christopher Morel have on the 2023 Cubs?
Who will win the Cubs’ 5th starter spot?
Where does Nick Madrigal fit on the roster?
Who will close for the Cubs?
What kind of impact will Dansby Swanson have in his first season in Chicago?
What is the plan for Matt Mervis?
Who are some under-the-radar players that could make the Opening Day roster?
What will Trey Mancini and Eric Hosmer bring to this team?
Which young Cubs pitchers will take the next step this season?
What can we expect from Kyle Hendricks when he returns this season?
What does the Opening Day bullpen look like?
Will the Cubs’ pitching staff pick up where it left off?
What will the Opening Day lineup look like?
After career years with Cubs, what’s next for Ian Happ and Nico Hoerner?