Reports: Cubs bolster lineup with former MVP Cody Bellinger
SAN DIEGO — It appears the Cubs have their center fielder.
According to reports, the Cubs have agreed to terms with free agent Cody Bellinger. The deal is for one year and a reported $17.5 million.
Outfielder Cody Bellinger and the Chicago Cubs are in agreement on a one-year, $17.5 million contract, sources familiar with the deal tell ESPN.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) December 6, 2022
The signing is a fit for both sides — Bellinger has a chance to rebuild his value while the Cubs made no secret of their intentions for center field in 2023.
“We have guys internally that will certainly play out there,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said last month at the GM meetings. “But I think the lion’s share might come from external.”
Bellinger gets a one-year deal as he looks to bounce back and rediscover his MVP form from 2019.
“We’ve had multi-year offers for him, but we’re probably gonna pursue a one-year contract,” his agent Scott Boras said just hours before the deal was reported Tuesday afternoon. “He is a player I think a lot of teams are surprised he’s available. 27-year-old, MVP-type guy who suffered an injury, is getting his strength back.
“I think there’s a lot of guys that are looking at that as a very serious upside to it.”
That’s what the Cubs saw.
Bellinger clubbed 123 home runs and slashed .273/.364/.547 with a 140 OPS+ and 318 RBI from 2017 through 2020. He was the NL Rookie of the Year and the 2019 MVP, won a Silver Slugger, a Gold Glove and was named to two All-Star teams in that time.
“He’s a really good fit from a perspective of it is great defense, great baserunning, left-handed bat with the potential to have an uptick offensively if that works out,” David Ross said Tuesday afternoon.
He has struggled the last two seasons, hitting just 29 home runs in 239 games, slashing .193/.256/.355 in that time. Bellinger suffered a separated shoulder in the 2020 World Series celebrating a home run and was slow to recover, hampering his 2021 campaign.
The lockout slowed his 2022 campaign that was a struggle offensively. Boras and Bellinger feel that this offseason, he’s finally been able to build up properly and rediscover his form from early on in his career.
Ross believes health likely played a role in Bellinger’s recent struggles, as injuries may have had a carryover effect that could create bad habits mechanically.
“Those bad habits create mistakes or make it tougher to hit and then you get into this rabbit hole of chasing the feeling that you used to have and where you’re at mechanically,” Ross said. “There’s a lot of freedom in getting a full offseason to get healthy, recognize that and a change of scenery sometimes is a benefit for a lot of guys.”
Despite his struggles, Bellinger showed his prowess with a glove, amassing a 1.2 WAR (per Baseball-Reference) and had 6 outs above average in center field, ranking 8th among all center fielders. His defensive versatility also allows the Cubs to use him at first base, if needed (he has played 262 games at first base in MLB).
The move solidifies the Cubs outfield — Ian Happ will play left field, Bellinger will likely roam center and Seiya Suzuki will man right field. If he can rediscover his form, Bellinger’s addition will make the Cubs outfield a strength — Suzuki showed signs of promise in his first MLB season and should improve with time and improved comfort in the U.S. while Happ was an All-Star in 2022.
Bellinger’s addition also brings a different element to a Cubs offense that was mostly right-handed last season.
“The potential to add a left-handed bat in our lineup was very important,” Ross said. “We’re heavy right-handed. Being able to have that versatility is nice. I don’t think it’s a must but having a couple guys in there that can break that up — Happer being a switch-hitter obviously. Having another left-handed bat in the lineup as things shake out right now would be nice.”
The Cubs will have outfield depth with Christopher Morel and Nelson Velázquez able to man center field if Bellinger needs time off.
Additionally, the Cubs’ top two prospects, Brennen Davis and Pete Crow-Armstrong, can play center field. Crow-Armstrong’s defensive prowess — he won a minor league Gold Glove in 2022 — has been lauded and Bellinger’s addition doesn’t tie them down for multiple years while Crow-Armstrong continues to ascend through the minor league ladder (he finished last season with Advanced Class-A South Bend).