How new Cubs outfielder Cody Bellinger can bounce back in Chicago
While Cody Bellinger knew it was a possibility, there was still a sense of shock when he was non-tendered by the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“It was at first a little bittersweet,” he said Tuesday. “I’ve been with them since 2013. I was 17 years old trying on that jersey for the first time.”
The blow quickly turned into optimism.
“I think my favorite thing that I’ve learned is that you can’t change the past, but you can learn from it,” Bellinger said.
The past, like his non-tender, was bittersweet.
Bellinger burst onto the scene in the big leagues, winning the 2017 NL Rookie of the year and the 2019 NL MVP, clubbing 111 home runs over his first 3 seasons while posting a .928 OPS and a 144 OPS+, which is 44 percentage points above league average.
Things hit a roadblock in 2021 and 2022, where he played in just 239 games, hitting .193 with 29 home runs and a .611 OPS.
“There were definitely injuries involved and your body wasn’t moving how it used to and I can go on and on,” Bellinger said.
It’s why he believes managing his body can help unlock an offensive profile close to what he was in his first three years in the league.
This offseason, the 27-year-old Bellinger has been doing different workouts that are tailored to his body and specific areas of his body that need strengthening. As he’s gotten older and his body has grown, some of the workouts and offseason programs that he had in the first few years weren’t helping him in the way they used to.
“That’s what happens as life happens and you get older,” Bellinger said. “The body specific training that I’ve been doing recently and translating what I’m doing into the cage and just into the baseball field in general — just being athletic and letting my ability take over.”
If he can do that, that provides a much-needed boon to the Cubs.
After all, despite his offensive struggles the last two years, Bellinger has posted 9 outs above average defensively in center field, third amongst NL center fielders in that time. He was the second-best NL center fielder in terms of outs above average (7) in 2022.
In 2022, the Cubs ranked 29th in baseball in outs above average (-7) from the center field position and were 30th across 2021 and 2022 in that department (-10).
Bellinger’s addition, along with the addition of Dansby Swanson at shortstop, moving Nico Hoerner to second base and Ian Happ’s Gold Glove defense in left field immediately boosts the Cubs defense as a whole.
“I’m very excited, man,” Bellinger said. “I talked to Happ yesterday, actually, and obviously he improved his defense a lot last year and showed what he could do. Dansby showed what he could do. Nico, he’s a guy that wants it really bad and he’s dedicated and determined. Overall, I think we have a very solid team defensively and offensively all around.”
And any improvement offensively from Bellinger will benefit both sides. The Cubs were 20th in baseball in OPS from center fielders (.659) and tied for 18th in home runs (15). While it’s unrealistic to expect Bellinger to hit 47 home runs and post a 1.035 OPS in 2023, the Cubs would gladly take a season in which he can hit 20 to 25 home runs and post an OPS over .750.
Both sides believe he can recoup some value in 2023 — the health aspect is big, but there’s familiarity in the organization for Bellinger. Assistant hitting coach Johnny Washington was a coach in the Dodgers minor league system from 2009 through 2015 and was the Padres hitting coach in 2019, when the two were in the NL West.
“J-Wash, we’ve been in close contact since he was with the Dodgers,” Bellinger said. “He’s just an intelligent guy and loves baseball. He’s known me since I was 17, 18 years old.”
For Bellinger, an offensive resurgence in 2023 would reset his value going into the 2024 offseason after he signed a 1-year deal with the Cubs.
“Definitely important; not gonna say it’s not,” Bellinger said. “I think where I’m at right now and how I feel mentally, physically, I’m in a pretty good spot. It makes me excited to start working out with the staff and talking through whatever we need to talk through to get going.
“It’s definitely a big year but I feel really good and I’m excited for it.”