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As the Cubs move into the beginning stages of their offseason, one question stands out: Will Cody Bellinger return to the North Side in 2024?
Signed to a one-year deal last winter (with a mutual option for 2024, per Spotrac, which he’s almost guaranteed to decline) after being non-tendered by the Dodgers, Bellinger re-established his value as an extremely valuable two-way player for the Cubs this season. On top of him continuing to provide a very steady glove both in center field (4 outs above average) and at first base (1 OAA), he was also the best bat in the Cubs’ lineup, hitting .307 with 26 home runs, an .881 OPS and a 134 wRC+.
Not only did those numbers lead all Cubs with more than 32 plate appearances on the year, but they were each his best since his 2019 National League MVP campaign (and his average was a career-high). After a couple of down years in Los Angeles, thanks in part to injuries, Bellinger rebounded and looked much more like the hitter that took the league by storm early in his career.
Health played a role, and as he’s pointed out, so did just the overall consistency that had been missing for him. The fact that it was a contract year probably added some extra motivation, but that’s certainly not all that helped him resurrect his career in 2023.
“It’s never easy,” Bellinger said. “I just trusted my ability, focused on the game at hand, what’s at stake, me against a pitcher. Literally just trying to help, be the best version of myself, help his team. It’s a very challenging game, so I’m glad I was able to play how I wanted to play.”
Bellinger took care of his end of the deal, helping — and sometimes even carrying — the Cubs nearly to a playoff berth. The type of season he had, on top of the easy-going personality, endeared him to fans who are already clamoring for the front office to do everything they can to keep him.
“I told him this: ‘It’s rare to have a guy come in on a one-year deal and have that kind of connection with the fans by the middle of season,'” president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said at his end-of-season press conference Monday. “It was really special, and he deserves a lot of credit for how hard he plays and the way he played. I think that’s what created that [connection].”
But the reality is that Bellinger (along with his group) bet on himself last offseason. He chose to sign the one-year deal with the Cubs to re-establish his value, and he’ll be able to cash in a year later as one of the top sluggers on the market.
Scott Boras is his agent, too, so he’ll be a major factor in negotiations. If that side waits out the market, will the Cubs be willing to wait as well? Because if re-signing him is as much of an offseason priority as it should be for them, then they might just have to.
“Obviously, I think the world of Cody,” Hoyer said. “We are certainly going to be in communication. If we are in communication, I’ll try to keep that as quiet as humanly possible. It doesn’t help us in any way to have that out there. But it’s good. I think you’re always trying to sell free agents on what it’s like to play in Chicago. There’s nothing better than having a guy experience it for a year and openly say he loves it. Certainly, it gives us a shot. We don’t have to recruit him very hard. I think he knows what this place is all about, and I know he loved it.”
Said Bellinger: “You never know how things are like anywhere else. I only know two places now. I think that this team is special with a great coaching staff. I definitely enjoyed my time.”
Having had Bellinger in the organization for a year is definitely an advantage, as Hoyer pointed out. It wouldn’t be a situation where a free agent is being recruited to a completely new team. Bellinger has gotten the chance to interact with this front office, coaching staff and roster, and he’s experience what it’s like playing in front of the Wrigley Field crowd with a Cubs uniform on. He knows what he’s getting if he decides to return.
“I had a great experience,” Bellinger said. “Love Wrigley Field. It’s a beautiful place. They’re great fans, very passionate, very loyal. I really had a great time playing for the Cubs organization and Wrigley Field.”
So, if that truly is an advantage, using it to get him back in the fold feels almost like a necessity.
During his season-ending presser last year, Hoyer discussed the need to add power to the lineup. The team played so many close games that season, and Hoyer thought “a little quicker-strike offense” would’ve led to the team being able to pull away more often.
That didn’t really manifest itself this season, either. The Cubs had six players with 20-plus home runs, but none with more than 26. They were average to a little above-average among the 30 major league teams in total home runs (196, 15th), isolated power (.167, 14th) and slugging percentage (.421, 11th). Respectable numbers, sure, but not the numbers they were looking for to help eliminate the randomness of close games (they were 21-24 in one-run games, for example).
Bellinger’s numbers were at or near the top of each of those leaderboards for the Cubs. So if they don’t re-sign him, they’ll be losing one of their best sluggers.
Despite missing the playoffs this season due to a September collapse, 2023 can absolutely be painted as a step forward for the organization. But there were flaws in the roster even with Bellinger in tow that need to be addressed this offseason. Losing him would mean another hole they’d have to figure out how to fill.
“The contributions he made will have to be replaced,” Hoyer said. “Obviously, we’d love to bring him back, but in a world where that’s somewhat uncertain, we do have to figure out a way to replace that offensively.”
With Boras as his agent, Bellinger’s free agency may not go as quickly as clubs around the league hope. Not that any suitors could sign Bellinger right now anyway, but Boras has a history of allowing things to play out to help get the best deals for his clients. While that’s a great thing for their end of negotiations, for the Cubs, that could present a challenge in their goal of building another roster with playoff expectations, not knowing if their plan will include Bellinger for potentially a few months.
But again, Bellinger’s rebound season played a major part in getting the Cubs to Game 161 without being mathematically eliminated from postseason contention. He’s still only 28 years old, and if the Cubs believe that rebound can last for the duration of his next contract, it seems it would be in their best interest to add him back to the lineup — however long getting a deal done might take.
“Our experience with him was fantastic,” Hoyer said. “We’d love to bring him back. We’ll have a lot of conversations with him. Obviously, it’s a process, and that process does not start now. It’s going to play out for a while.”
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