The Chicago Cubs’ first splash in free agency presents a very lucrative gamble.
Center fielder Cody Bellinger agreed to a one-year contract with the Cubs on Tuesday, a source confirmed to the Tribune. The $17.5 million guaranteed contract includes a $12 million salary for 2023 and a reciprocal option for 2024 with a $5.5 million buyout.
The option is not expected to be taken up. Bellinger’s contract follows the way the Cubs have structured some short-term trades recently, such as left-hander Drew Smyly’s contract last season.
Bellinger, 27, is not the same hitter who won the 2019 National League MVP award with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Over the past two seasons, the left-handed slugger has posted a 64 OPS+, .193 batting average and .256 on-base percentage in 900 plate appearances.
Even with his recent offensive shortcomings, Bellinger will provide the Cubs with Gold Glove-caliber defense in center field.
He’ll also help balance out a righty-heavy lineup, and the chance for Bellinger to recapture some of what made him a special hit with the Dodgers was worth the one-year risk.
Manager David Ross could only speak generally about Bellinger because the deal was not official.
“He’s a great fit from a great defense and great baserunning perspective, a left-handed bat that can help offensively if that works out,” Ross said Tuesday.
It will take some acceptance and work from Bellinger to return to league-average production, let alone match his 2019 MVP numbers. The latter is probably too much of an expectation given the pronounced struggles Bellinger’s over the past two seasons.
But the Cubs wouldn’t make this deal, even on a one-year term, if the front office and hit infrastructure didn’t believe he was capable of implementing swing and approach changes.
Bellinger hit 111 home runs in his first three seasons, including 39 in his 2017 NL Rookie of the Year campaign and 47 two years later when he won the MVP award. He had a .305/.406/.629 slash line that season with 115 RBI and a 167 OPS+.
Injuries didn’t help Bellinger’s performance.
In 2020, he dislocated his non-throwing shoulder during Game 7 of the NL Championship Series while celebrating a home run with his Dodgers teammates. The injury required offseason surgery. In 2021, Bellinger fractured his left fibula in the first week of the season. It was one of three stints on the injured list that year.
Ross believes Bellinger’s recent injury history has played a role in his offensive problems. A change of scenery could serve as a boon and a fresh start.
“Playing through an injury, trying to come back and learning how to balance wanting to be on the court and being fully healthy is what a lot of players deal with in my experience,” Ross said, “and trying to I’m going back and maybe I won’t get there.
“And then maybe you get into a space where you have a foot problem, you have a shoulder problem, and you have some bad habits, and bad habits create mistakes or make it harder to hit. And then you go down a rabbit hole, chasing the feeling you had before and where you are mechanically.”
With Bellinger in place, the Cubs remain busy in the free agent shortstop market. Ross sidestepped the question of whether he was part of the Cubs contingent that met with Carlos Correa during the winter meetings, slyly noting, “We got to meet with a lot of players.”
Ross spoke highly of his former Boston Red Sox teammate Xander Bogaerts, who played with Ross during the free agent’s first two big league seasons in 2013-14.
“You guys look at the numbers, but X, he’s a leader,” Ross said. “He was at a young age. He’s the guy who leads by example. He has a good attitude. He’s a hard worker, he brings it every day. And it lights up a room. … Good player, but a special person.”