Cubs Bet on Cody Bellinger as Cody Bellinger Bets on Himself

Cody Bellinger
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

On a busy Tuesday at the Winter Meetings, the Cubs filled a hole in their outfield, signing centerfielder Cody Bellinger to a one-year deal with a mutual option for a second year, totaling $17.5 million in guaranteed money. The agreement gives the former MVP a change of scenery in his campaign to revive some version of the five-tool player who posted 7.7 WAR in his third full season at the age of 24 back in 2019 but has battled injuries and struggled mightily at the plate since then. For the Cubs, it’s a bet on a 27-year-old who they can reasonably expect, if healthy, to be no less than a solid defender in center field with a possibility to contribute a lot more value at the plate. It also means a chance to introduce some clarity into their 2023 outfield picture; barring further changes, Bellinger will join a pair of 28-year-olds in Ian Happ in left and Seiya Suzuki in right to form a capable starting unit for a team that was forced to employ a bit of a revolving door strategy in center in 2022.

2023 Cubs Starting OF Steamer Projections
Player Age PA HR SB BB% K% wOBA wRC+ BsR Off Def WAR
Cody Bellinger 27 499 18 10 9.0% 24.9% .307 97 0.6 -1 1 1.8
Seiya Suzuki 28 624 26 10 11.0% 21.9% .352 128 -0.8 19.7 -7.6 3.5
Ian Happ 28 651 23 9 10.5% 24.6% .331 114 0.1 10.6 -5.4 2.8

The $17.5 million guarantee comes split over the next two years, as Bellinger will earn $12 million in 2023 with a $5.5 million buyout on the mutual option for the second year of the contract. This structure has become somewhat of a signature for the Cubs, who have signed a number of one-year deals with mutual options in the last couple of offseasons, including with Mychal Givens, Drew Smyly, and Jonathan Villar in 2022 and Jake Arrieta, Jake Marisnick, Joc Pederson, and Andrew Chafin in ’21. Mutual options are exceedingly unlikely to be picked up; in all likelihood, either the player did well enough in year one of the contract to want to test free agency or poorly enough that the club is unwilling to pay its end of the option. But the structure allows the team to offer a higher guarantee on a short-term contract while limiting its annual commitments under the salary tax and effectively deferring some portion of the money. For Chicago, Bellinger represents the beginning of what team president Jed Hoyer has indicated will be a busy offseason; just a few hours later, the Cubs signed right-hander Jameson Taillon to a four-year, $68 million deal. Attracting talent like Bellinger while managing to keep a good chunk of guaranteed money off the 2023 books is a great way to keep other doors open across the market.

Now, about that guarantee: $17.5 million would seem like a lot to pay for one year of a player who has accumulated a grand total of 0.7 WAR over 239 games in his last two seasons (to say nothing of his 9.1 in 216 games in the two seasons before that) and who Steamer projects to be worth 1.8 WAR in 2023. It comes in just under the $18.1 million that Bellinger was projected by MLB Trade Rumors to earn in his final year of arbitration before being non-tendered by the Dodgers. But the rationale behind the union is a great example of the kind of agreement that had Ben Clemens musing earlier this week. Ben’s thoughts are required reading — don’t take this quote as a comprehensive summary — but the gist as it applies to Bellinger is this: “Baseball players aren’t anything close to fungible. They’re all unique, and the needs of the 30 teams participating in free agency are unique. Reducing the discussion of free agency to an accounting of dollars and cents compared to some model misses most of the point of the exercise.”

In the case of Bellinger and the Cubs, each party found itself in need of a negotiating partner that fit a specific bill this offseason. Bellinger and agent Scott Boras were clear that they preferred a deal structured for one year, despite having received at least one multi-year offer, to give him another opportunity in free agency next season at the age of 28, ideally with evidence of an offensive revival to speak to. The Cubs are a big-market team with a willingness to spend and a drive to improve from last year, a need for a strong defensive presence in their outfield, and a propensity for getting creative with short-term deals to sweeten the offer without increasing the hit against the luxury tax threshold.

If Bellinger and Boras were looking for the maximum guarantee on an effective one-year deal, the Cubs were great candidates to provide that. If Chicago needed a young, athletic defensive centerfielder available on the short term, Bellinger was uniquely suited to match those wants. While the $17.5 million figure is indeed a lot for a player coming off a difficult couple of years, Ben’s point rings true: the needs of player and club are dependent on a whole variety of circumstances, and it would be reductive to fixate on the guarantee without considering the context.

Prior to committing to Chicago, Bellinger had emerged as a popular option in this winter’s market, which I wrote about a few weeks ago. Ultimately, somewhere around a third of the league checked in with some level of interest, which helped push the price up to near his projected arbitration value. This broad interest is an indicator of what teams see in Bellinger. Although he still has room to bounce back to league-average offense after hitting a career rock bottom in 2021, he improved enough at the plate last season to be worth nearly 2.0 WAR, with much-improved contact rates and quality of contact. For a player who is able to contribute as much as he does away from the plate, this was enough to entice a whole slate of potential suitors. Hoyer’s Cubs won out.

Bellinger from 2021 to 2022
Metric 2021 2022
WAR -1.0 1.7
wRC+ 47 83
wOBA .237 .284
Barrel% 7.1% 8.3%
Hard% 30.8% 34.7%
Contact% 72.3% 76.0%
SwStr% 14.2% 12.0%

Bellinger seems to have found a good fit for his goals this offseason, but it’s fair to say that pursuing a deal with just one guaranteed year was a significant bet on himself as well. If he stays healthy and continues to improve at the plate, he’ll hit free agency at the age of 28 with a lot to offer and could find himself in the position to sign a large contract into his 30s. But if he battles injuries again or otherwise takes a step back in his comeback efforts, 28 will start to sound a lot closer to 30, and he could find the pitch of his services a little harder to sell next winter. Hopefully for Bellinger and the Cubs, the former MVP will regain some of his patience at the plate, continue to make harder and more frequent contact, and maybe even find a few extra holes in a roomier right side of the infield in 2023. Both would prefer for him to be the one to decline the mutual option around this time next year.

Chris is a data journalist and FanGraphs contributor. Prior to his career in journalism, he worked in baseball media relations for the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox.

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1 year ago

I thought this was a lot of money to give to a guy who hasn’t hit in a couple of years until I saw what they gave Taillon.

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Yeah I don’t get this contract either. If Bellinger reverts to form, the Cubs are still middle of the pack at best and get a lower draft choice next year. If Bellinger doesn’t revert to form, they just paid 17 mil for nothing.

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Neither one of these deals is much money