Will Cody Bellinger make good on a new deal with the Chicago Cubs?

By | February 25, 2024

Cody Bellinger has agreed to a three-year contract after reviving his career in 2023.  (Photo by Matt Dirksen/Getty Images)

His advantage is undeniable. Its disadvantage is impossible to underestimate.

It’s a calculation that teams in the market for hitting help had to take into account as they pursued Cody Bellinger this season. While this winter’s slow-moving market likely depressed the duration and overall value of Bellinger’s deal, the Cubs ultimately decided the upside was worth the risk as they reportedly agreed Sunday to bring back Bellinger on a three-year contract worth of $80 million. The agreement reportedly includes opt-outs for Bellinger after the first and second years.

After Shohei Ohtani’s signing with the Dodgers, Bellinger’s was the most coveted bat left on a meager free-agent market after a resurgent 2023 campaign in Chicago that suggested Bellinger was past the hitting and injury woes that plunged him into the depths of his final three seasons. in Los Angeles. The Cubs are banking on those seasons being an interim step in Bellinger’s return to MVP form, rather than the norm, as they re-sign their top-ranked player from last season.

From MVP to below the Mendoza line

Bellinger didn’t just struggle from 2020 to 2022. He was one of the worst hitters in baseball at times, with numbers that relegated many players to the minors. His struggles started in 2020, the season after he won NL MVP. Bellinger slashed .239/.333/.455 during the COVID-shortened season.

Then came the injury widely blamed for his downfall. In Game 7 of the 2020 NLCS en route to a Dodgers World Series title, Bellinger hit a home run against the Atlanta Braves over the right field wall at Globe Life Field. After touching home, he traded celebratory forearm strikes with teammates AJ Pollock and Kiké Hernández.

His right shoulder was dislocated during one of those blows. He then had to undergo offseason shoulder surgery and had the worst season of his career.

Through 95 games in 2021, Bellinger slashed .165/.240/.302, and his WAR dropped from an MLB-best 8.6 in 2019 to -1.7 just two seasons later. He improved in 2022, but not by much, slashing .210/.265/.389 in 144 games. In light of the decline, his days with the Dodgers were numbered.

What was the source of Bellinger’s struggle?

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what caused Bellinger’s decline. It started in 2020, during the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, which, honestly, took most of us out of our A-game. While Bellinger’s shoulder dislocation is often cited, a broken fibula suffered in April 2021 didn’t help his case.

He also continued to rock during his rehabilitation, a fault that some believe is the real culprit in the force-intensive decline of his mechanics. At the same time, Bellinger’s plate discipline suffered. He struck out in 29.8% of his plate appearances in the 2021 and 2022 seasons, a significant spike from the 19.4% in his 2019 MVP campaign.

Compare those last three seasons in Los Angeles to 2019, when Bellinger was the most feared hitter in baseball. That season he slashed .305/.406/.629 with 47 home runs, 115 RBI and 15 stolen bases. His total bases of 351 and 21 intentional walks were the most in the MLB, and his number of home runs surpassed the totals of his next three seasons, in which Bellinger hit 41 over the course of 295 games.

Bellinger’s modified approach leads to success for Cubs

Entering 2023, the Cubs bet that the MVP version of Bellinger was still attainable for the then 27-year-old, signing him to a one-year, $17.5 million prove-it deal. And Bellinger proved it. Enough so that he declined his 2024 option, a decision that allowed him to hit the free-agent market in search of the first long-term contract of his career.

That said, the 2023 Bellinger wasn’t the stomper who averaged 37 home runs in his first three MLB seasons, including Rookie of the Year honors and his MVP trophy. No, in Chicago Bellinger’s swing was different, and so was his approach. Making contact and putting the ball in play became the priorities. His exit velocity decreased as his contact rate and batting average increased.

The power was still there; it just wasn’t the main goal. The result was a .307/.356/.525 slash line with 26 home runs and 97 RBI in addition to a career-high 20 stolen bases. Bellinger’s batting average was also a career best. As a result, he earned a Silver Slugger award, a 10th-place finish in the MVP voting and regained confidence in his swing, which earned him his new deal.

Which version of Bellinger will the Cubs get?

The expectation now is that Bellinger can maintain some version of that 2023 performance over the course of this contract – and perhaps even add some more of the lost power. There is of course no guarantee that this will happen.

For the reasons mentioned above, Bellinger’s contract carries significant risk for Chicago. No doubt, the lack of hitting options on the market this winter, the tough skill of agent Scott Boras and Bellinger’s tantalizing ceiling all worked in his favor in free agency. Furthermore, this addition to the Cubs retains their best hitter from last season.

Still, the question now becomes: will Bellinger make it happen?

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