The Chicago Cubs’ first splash in free agency features a high-upside gamble.
Center fielder Cody Bellinger agreed to a one-year deal 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 mutual option for 2024 with a $5.5 million buyout.
The option is not expected to be picked up. Bellinger’s contract follows how the Cubs have recently structured some short-term deals, such as left-hander Drew Smyly’s contract last season.
Bellinger, 27, is the not the same hitter who won the 2019 National League MVP award with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Over the last two seasons, the left-handed slugger posted a 64 OPS+, .193 batting average and .256 on-base percentage in 900 plate appearances.
Even with his recent offensive shortcomings, Bellinger will give the Cubs Gold Glove-caliber defense in center field and could see some playing time at first base.
His greatest defensive impact remains in center. Bellinger’s seven outs above average at the position in 2022 easily exceeded the Cubs’ combined OAA from their center fielders (minus-7). He gives them their best defensive center fielder since Albert Almora Jr.
He also will help balance a right-handed-heavy lineup, and the chance of Bellinger recapturing some of what made him a special hitter with the Dodgers was worth the one-year risk.
Manager David Ross could speak only generally about Bellinger because the deal was not official.
“He’s a really good fit from a perspective of great defense and great baserunning, a left-handed bat potentially to help offensively if that works out,” Ross said Tuesday.
It will take buy-in and work from Bellinger to get back to league-average production, let alone touch his 2019 MVP numbers. The latter is likely too lofty an expectation given Bellinger’s pronounced struggles the last two seasons.
But the Cubs wouldn’t make this deal, even on a one-year term, if the front office and hitting infrastructure didn’t believe he was capable of applying swing and approach changes.
Bellinger hit 111 home runs over 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 RBIs and a 167 OPS+.
Injuries haven’t helped 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 during 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 played a part in his offensive woes. The change of scenery could serve as a benefit and fresh start.
“Playing through an injury, trying to come back and learning how to balance wanting to be out on the field and getting fully healthy is what a lot of players in my experience deal with,” Ross said, “and trying to rush back and maybe not getting all the way there.
“And then maybe getting into a space where you’ve got a leg issue, you’ve got a shoulder issue and you get into some bad habits, and bad habits create mistakes or make it tougher to hit. And then you get into a rabbit hole of chasing the feeling you used to have and where you’re at mechanically.”
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts expressed confidence Bellinger will return to form in Chicago.
“I don’t think the skill set’s changed,” Roberts said Tuesday. “Certainly he’s motivated. Maybe a change of scenery will be beneficial. I know David Ross. I know (Cubs President) Jed (Hoyer). So the environment’s going to be good for him.”
The Cubs identified center field as a position to add stability this offseason after using five players for at least 19 games each in 2022. With Bellinger in place, the roster still needs a lot of work to transform into a postseason contender.
Adding a catcher remains a priority, either through free agency or a trade. While the Cubs feel comfortable with the Yan Gomes/P.J. Higgins tandem, they will evaluate other options to pair with Gomes, who will get “a good amount of playing time regardless,” general manager Carter Hawkins said Tuesday.
The Cubs remain engaged in the free-agent shortstop market. Ross sidestepped a question about whether he was part of the Cubs contingent that met with Carlos Correa during the winter meetings, slyly noting, “We’ve 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 shortstop’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 an early age. He’s the guy that sets the example. He’s got a good attitude. He’s a worker, brings it every single day. And he lights up a room. … Good player but a special person.”