Options, Options: Cody Bellinger Returns to the Cubs

Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

For as strong as his 2023 campaign had been, and for as well positioned as he was in this winter’s market, Cody Bellinger‘s free agency was always hampered by questions of sustainability. His debut season with the Cubs followed two unsettlingly bad years with the Dodgers, and the metrics underlying last season’s resurgence were comparatively modest relative to his production, raising the possibility if not the likelihood of regression. In light of those issues, even as he placed third on our Top 50 Free Agents list heading into the offseason and reportedly sought a contract as high as $250 million, it seemed quite likely he’d come away with considerably less. He did, agreeing to return to the Cubs on a three-year, $80 million deal, one that contains opt-outs after the first two seasons, and one that was still pending a physical as of this writing.

Effectively, this is a pillow contract, negotiated by the agent who created the term, Scott Boras. The 28-year-old Bellinger will get the opportunity to show that his 2023 performance was no fluke, with two chances before his age-30 season to secure a much bigger payday. He’s guaranteed $30 million in 2024, with salaries of $30 million in ’25 and $20 million in ’26 if he hasn’t exercised his opt-outs, according to ESPN’s Jeff Passan.

Bellinger came to the Cubs after an eventful 10-year run in the Dodgers’ organization, one that began when the son of former utilityman Clay Bellinger was drafted in the fourth round out of an Arizona high school in 2013. He hit 39 home runs while winning NL Rookie of the Year honors in 2017, and smacked 47 homers two years later while taking home the NL MVP award. His timely hitting and spectacular fielding during the 2020 postseason helped the Dodgers to their first championship since 1988, but one of those timely hits precipitated his fall. Celebrating what proved to be the decisive home run in Game 7 of the 2020 NLCS against the Braves, the exuberant Bellinger dislocated his right (non-throwing) shoulder after bashing forearms with teammate Enrique Hernández. He underwent arthroscopic labrum surgery after the World Series, started slowly in spring training, and then in the fourth game of the season suffered a hairline fracture in his left fibula, knocking him out for eight weeks. Unable to find his rhythm as he recovered from both shoulder and leg issues, he hit a gruesome .165/.240/.302 (47 wRC+) with -1.0 WAR in 350 plate appearances, though he showed signs of life during the playoffs when he adopted a shortened swing with lower hand placement; he hit .353/.436/.471 (146 wRC+) across 39 plate appearances in 12 postseason games. While he got off to a solid start in 2022, he couldn’t maintain it despite endlessly tinkering with his swing. Exceptional defense in center field kept him in the lineup, but he hit just .210/.265/.389 (83 wRC+) with 1.8 WAR, and was nontendered following the season.

Less than three weeks later, Bellinger agreed to a one-year deal with the Cubs, one that paid him $12.5 million for 2023 with a $1 million bonus for winning NL Comeback Player of the Year honors (which he did) and a $5 million buyout on a $25 million mutual option for ’24. He declined his end of the option as well as the $20.325 million qualifying offer he received, and entered the market as the top free agent position player, behind only pitcher/designated hitter Shohei Ohtani and pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto on our list.

For Bellinger, last year’s change of scenery proved to be just what the doctor ordered. Reuniting with Cubs hitting coach Dustin Kelly and assistant Johnny Washington, both of whom he had worked with in the Dodgers’ system, Bellinger focused on adjusting his mechanics, particularly with regards to his hand placement and back hip, allowing him to use his lower body better. He further adapted his approach by pulling the ball with less frequency than at any time since his rookie season, and shortening his swing with two strikes to focus on contact. The result was his best season since 2019, as he hit .307/.356/.525 (134 wRC+) with 26 homers and 20 steals in 130 games — he missed nearly four weeks with a left knee contusion — while cutting his strikeout rate from 27.3% to 15.6%. Coupled with solid defense in center field, his 4.1 WAR tied for 20th in the NL and was the second-best showing of his career.

Bellinger’s intent is worth noting when digging into his underlying metrics, as he sacrificed some power in exchange for contact en route to the lowest exit velocity, barrel rate, and hard-hit rate of his career:

Cody Bellinger Statcast Profile
Season BBE EV Barrel% HardHit% AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
2017 337 90.8 11.6% 45.7% .267 .254 .581 .540 .380 .365
2018 409 89.8 8.6% 38.1% .260 .237 .470 .432 .345 .327
2019 454 91.1 12.6% 45.6% .305 .319 .629 .635 .415 .430
2020 171 89.3 9.4% 41.5% .239 .284 .455 .494 .337 .374
2021 224 89.3 7.1% 34.4% .165 .209 .302 .358 .237 .281
2022 360 89.4 8.3% 38.1% .210 .213 .389 .354 .284 .278
2023 424 87.9 6.1% 31.4% .307 .270 .525 .434 .370 .327

Bellinger’s barrel rate placed in just the 27th percentile, his exit velo in the 22nd percentile, and his hard-hit rate in the 10th percentile. He outdid his expected slugging percentage by 91 points, and his expected wOBA by 43 points; both gaps ranked third in the majors among batting title qualifiers (502 PA). On the other hand, his .279 AVG and .312 wOBA with two strikes ranked second and seventh in the majors, thanks in large part to his consistency in collecting hits despite soft contact, a topic that MLB.com’s Mike Petriello and our own Esteban Rivera both investigated.

All of that created something of a puzzle for Bellinger’s suitors — most prominently the Blue Jays (considered the favorites to sign him as of mid-December) and Giants, with the Mariners and Yankees also connected to him via rumors. Bellinger’s deal always seemed unlikely to approach the hot air of the $200 million-plus Borasphere, but in our Top 50 exercise, Ben Clemens projected him to get a six-year, $150 million contract, and our crowdsource expected a six-year, $144 million one. Other outlets went even higher.

As the Blue Jays dragged their feet this winter, the Giants turned to Jung Hoo Lee, and the Cubs refused to act like a large-market team, Bellinger’s anticipated market never fully materialized, with the aforementioned issues undoubtedly playing a part, as well. By ZiPS, he did well to get as much as he did:

ZiPS Projection – Cody Bellinger
2024 .267 .327 .441 487 80 130 24 2 19 73 44 92 14 108 3 2.7
2025 .262 .323 .427 485 78 127 24 1 18 72 44 91 13 103 3 2.3
2026 .263 .325 .425 475 76 125 24 1 17 69 44 89 11 103 3 2.3

ZiPS projects just a three-year, $70 million contract for that forecast, per Dan Szymborski, though perhaps that’s not surprising given that Bellinger has had just one good season out of the last three. Based on the percentile breakdowns, it appears the system gives him only about a 10% to 20% chance of matching or exceeding last year’s performance:

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Cody Bellinger
Percentile 2B HR BA OBP SLG OPS+ WAR
95% 34 29 .317 .380 .544 146 5.2
90% 31 27 .304 .367 .520 137 4.6
80% 28 24 .291 .353 .498 127 4.0
70% 27 22 .282 .345 .478 122 3.5
60% 25 21 .274 .336 .465 115 3.1
50% 24 19 .267 .327 .441 108 2.7
40% 23 17 .257 .320 .429 102 2.2
30% 22 16 .250 .313 .415 97 1.9
20% 20 14 .241 .303 .400 90 1.4
10% 18 13 .228 .289 .374 82 0.8
5% 16 11 .221 .283 .357 74 0.3

Bellinger probably doesn’t have to match his 2023 numbers to justify opting out, and he does have two chances to decide when to enter the market again. Still, a mediocre 2024 followed by a strong ’25 would probably leave teams with similar questions to the ones they confronted this winter.

As for how he fits into the Cubs, the key word is flexibility. The team already had Ian Happ and Seiya Suzuki, both entering their age-29 seasons and on multi-year deals, set for the outfield corners. Prior to Bellinger’s re-signing, Pete Crow-Armstrong, the 20th-ranked prospect on our Top 100 list, appeared likely to take over as the Chicago’s regular center fielder. A 2020 first-round pick acquired from the Mets in the Javier Báez trade at the ’21 deadline, Crow-Armstrong hit a combined .283/.365/.511 (127 wRC+) in 73 games at Double-A Tennessee and 34 games at Triple-A Iowa. He went just 0-for-14 with three walks and two sacrifice hits in a cup of coffee with the Cubs, though to be fair, he started just three of the 13 games in which he appeared. He’s considered an elite center fielder who’s fearless on the basepaths and should produce at least average power. “If he can plug that hole over time, he’ll be a five-tool superstar,” wrote our prospect team of Eric Longenhagen and Tess Taruskin. “More likely, he’ll have some 20-25 homer seasons amid a ton of strikeouts and a low OBP, with peak years resembling Mike Cameron’s (though almost certainly not to that level of annual consistency).”

Given Crow-Armstrong’s age (he turns 22 on March 25) and modest amount of upper-level experience, it always seemed possible that he would start the season in the minors before rejoining the Cubs. Now it would appear even more likely. If he hits his way back to the majors in a hurry, the Cubs could use him in center field and play Bellinger at first base, where lefty-swinging rookie Michael Busch was slated to be the starter or at least the long half of a platoon with righty Patrick Wisdom. The 26-year-old Busch, no. 84 on our prospect list, is considered a bat-only prospect who last played first base regularly at North Carolina, and who may be better suited to DH duty. Alternately, Bellinger has experience in both left field (315.1 innings, though none since 2018) and right (989 innings, the bulk of them in 2019), and Happ has experience at every defensive position except shortstop and catcher, though he hasn’t played the infield since 2021, when he totaled 36 innings, mostly at second base. Also in the category of moving parts is Christopher Morel, who last year saw time at all three outfield positions plus second base, shortstop, and third base; he was projected to get the bulk of the work at DH but also to be in the third base mix along with Nick Madrigal. Suffice to say that new manager Craig Counsell will have options for how to piece his lineup together, and that a clearer picture may emerge during spring training.

Via our Depth Charts projections, here’s a comparison of how the situation looked before the signing and immediately after, in terms of estimated plate appearances:

Cody Bellinger and the Cubs’ Moving Parts
Player Pre/Post-Signing 1B 3B LF CF RF DH Total PA*
Bellinger Post 280 245 98 623
Busch Pre 308 91 49 469
Busch Post 252 63 84 420
Crow-Armstrong Pre 420 420
Crow-Armstrong Post 350 350
Happ Pre 623 42 665
Happ Post 651 14 665
Madrigal Pre 357 371
Madrigal Post 294 301
Morel Pre 35 49 35 14 21 378 553
Morel Post 126 21 14 14 329 518
Suzuki Pre 441 161 602
Suzuki Post 406 182 588
Tauchman Pre 21 203 147 371
Tauchman Post 14 70 168 252
Wisdom Pre 245 126 14 35 420
Wisdom Post 133 182 357
* = includes plate appearances positions that may not be shown

In terms of overall playing time, the real loser of the Bellinger deal is Mike Tauchman, a capable center fielder who hit .252/.363/.377 (107 wRC+) last year, with Crow-Armstrong, Madrigal, and Wisdom also losing substantial time. Keep in mind that all of this is based on best guesses just as exhibition season has opened, and before the Cubs have even confirmed the deal. A lot could still change.

Particularly with the Cardinals, Brewers, Cubs, and Reds each projected to win between 79 and 85 games, the NL Central is expected to be a dogfight. Any impactful addition could be the difference between reaching the postseason — something the Cubs haven’t done since 2020 — and staying home. By bringing back Bellinger, the team has given itself a better shot at playing in October without assuming a huge long-term risk. Bellinger, for his part, gets to return to a comfortable situation with a contending team, while also knowing that he can play his way into a bigger contract. It will be fascinating to see how this all unfolds.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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CC AFCmember
1 month ago

I like that for Cody. It’s not likely he’ll have a better platform season, but since last year was so different than the two prior seasons, he can definitely improve his market just by doing something similar to last year. Meanwhile he locks in an $80m floor if things go haywire. Not sure I see a lot of upside for the cubs, but I am pro-giving away the Ricketts’ money.

1 month ago
Reply to  CC AFC

Agree 100% re Ricketts’ $$$. Even separate from my being a Milwaukee boy.

1 month ago
Reply to  CC AFC

The benefit for the Cubs is they needed a big, short term LH bat (until Caissie is mlb ready) and they now have it. Cubs dont want lots of years because they have a top farm system, so it really doesnt hurt them if Belli opts out

CC AFCmember
1 month ago
Reply to  musclepharm52

I’d go one further and say it’s better for the Cubs if he opts out. The only way he doesn’t is if he’s not gonna get more than 2/50 on the market. And if that’s the case, then things went very badly for him. Better if he just has a good year and you get that before he opts out.

1 month ago
Reply to  CC AFC

It’s _absolutely_ better for the Cubs in the instance that he opts out.

Last edited 1 month ago by RoyalsFan#14321
1 month ago
Reply to  CC AFC

I am not at all convinced that this is a better deal than the FG crowdsource, because with his injury history he should take the guaranteed money and run. But as far as pillow contracts go it doesn’t get much better than this. He gets *three* shots to establish a new normal, and if one fails he comes back the next year. And who knows, maybe a team wasn’t willing to offer him a $150M deal anyway.

Last edited 1 month ago by sadtrombone
1 month ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I think it is pretty much unquestionably worse. It’s about the best 3/$80m deal a player could sign, but $64m guaranteed is $64m guaranteed.

I understand this as “betting on yourself with a decent hedge,” which makes sense. I wonder what he could have gotten for just a one-year deal? Probably not that much more, so the couple extra years and guarantee make perfect sense. Since teams just don’t shell out top AAV for uncertain players regardless, the insurance policy probably didn’t even “cost” him very much.

1 month ago
Reply to  CC AFC

I think this is a good deal for the cubs. They get most likely 3 win player for 2024 at a slight overpay and improve their team to a point where they are now even odds to win the division with the cardinals, brewers, and reds. They at the same time dont have to overpay for his likely down seasons that are 3-4 seasons away with a big 6-7 year contract he was looking for.