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Cubs' Cody Bellinger stays hot as trade deadline nears

Ryan Avatar
July 22, 2023

In a season where plenty just hasn’t gone right for the Cubs, the resurgence of Cody Bellinger has been easily one of the biggest positives.

He’s probably not the most important success story (that would go to Justin Steele and his continued development into an All-Star and frontline starting pitcher). But as the Cubs have struggled with inconsistency down the stretch, Bellinger has performed as well as the front office could’ve hoped when they acquired him in free agency last winter.

To start the season, Bellinger’s March/April was one of the best months of his entire career. A couple of down weeks to start May, a knee injury that cost him a month on the injured list and a few games to get back into a rhythm when he returned slowed him down. But a 3-for-4 day — which included a home run, a double and two RBIs — that helped lead the Cubs to a 4-3 win over the Cardinals on Friday at Wrigley Field continued his scorching hot, nearly month-long stretch at the plate.

Since June 24, Bellinger is batting .442 (tops among qualified hitters in this stretch) with a 1.182 OPS. On top of the consistent, dependable defense he continues to provide at both first base and center field, this 23-game span has been a showcase of how the 2019 National League MVP and 2017 NL Rookie of the Year looks when he’s at his best.

“I feel really good, man,” Bellinger said. “Just the understanding of my body and strength and what I need to do every day. Honestly, like I keep saying, I just show up to help the team win. I really do. Go out and play baseball. It’s what I like doing, it’s what I enjoy doing and it’s the only thing I really can control.”

“It’s must-watch television,” said Steele, who picked up his 10th win of the season Friday. “I feel like everybody, when he comes up to bat at this point, is watching the TV. Because even when he gets down 0-2, 1-2, the at-bats he still puts together. I mean, he’s unbelievable. It’s so much fun to watch. Every time he comes up, I’m making sure I’m watching.”

Yes, Bellinger is must-watch TV when he’s playing the game like this. The only issue for the Cubs now is Bellinger will likely take that must-see brand of baseball elsewhere in the coming days.

When president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer spoke a week ago, he was clear that he hadn’t decided on which direction the Cubs would go at the trade deadline. With over two weeks of games to play at that point — plus what on paper looked to be a manageable schedule leading up to the deadline on Aug. 1 — there was still time for the Cubs to play their way into buyer status. Making up ground both on a .500 record and on first place in the NL Central would factor into the decision.

Over the last week, though, Cubs haven’t won enough to accomplish either. They’re 46-51 following the win Friday, and with the Brewers and Reds yet to play their series openers, the Cubs can finish 7 1/2 games back in the division at best. Is there a scenario where they rattle off a long winning streak and Milwaukee and Cincinnati drop a bunch of games over the next week or so? Sure, but their inconsistency has resulted in them being in a position where they need a lot of help. If things don’t change in their favor rapidly, the Cubs are expected to sell at the deadline for the third straight year.

And Bellinger is their best trade chip.

He checks a lot of boxes in terms of what buyers are looking for: He plays great defense at multiple positions, he’s a left-handed bat with power, and he has championship experience. He’s the type of player contenders should be checking in on.

“He’s a really good player,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “That’s why he’s a former MVP, right? The guy’s an absolute stud as a baseball player, and he’s a pleasure to be around. He’s the total package, for sure, especially when he’s playing like this.”

Bellinger said the front office has been open about “what could happen, what couldn’t happen” leading up to the trade deadline, though he wouldn’t divulge what exactly the message has been. He acknowledged that he hasn’t been in this type of situation before — the Dodgers made the postseason in each of his six seasons in Los Angeles — and wasn’t sure what he could and couldn’t say. But he reiterated the mindset of focusing on what he can control.

“Just understanding the reality of the game,” Bellinger said. “With that being said, a lot of it is out of my control — if I go, where I go, whatever happens. So, for me, I can only focus on the game and just staying within the game and just focusing on that. That’s it.”

As the skipper for what now looks to be three straight deadlines as sellers, Ross has seen the way players handle the distractions. Whether those distractions be their names in trade rumors or anything else, Ross knows some players handle things differently than others. Bellinger, though, is someone whose demeaner hasn’t changed since the day Ross met him.

“He doesn’t overthink things,” Ross said. “He just comes every day with a willingness to get better and try to win a baseball game. That’s all he’s focused on. He handles everything the same. Even when he’s scuffling, he feels like he’s locked in. He’s just got a great demeanor about him.”

Bellinger signed a one-year deal to come to Chicago that guaranteed him $17.5 million (2024 mutual option includes a $5.5 million buyout, per Spotrac). Part of the idea was that he could re-establish value and hit the market again if he could put together a bounce-back campaign.

Well, he’s certainly done that to this point in the season. He’s re-established his value as a high-caliber player. Bellinger signing an extension with the Cubs rather than entering free agency this offseason is unlikely to happen.

If the Cubs decide they want to continue pushing for a playoff spot into August and September, holding onto Bellinger would make sense. Even then, they would still run the risk of losing him in free agency with potentially only draft-pick compensation in return. And right now, trying to make that push doesn’t seem like the right course of action.

So, the likeliest scenario is the Cubs finding a trade partner looking to add Bellinger to their lineup. And hey, he even said himself he loves it here, so the Cubs would probably have a shot to re-sign him this winter if they’re willing to give him the right offer.

Nobody wants a third straight deadline selloff — as small as this one might be — on the North Side. Fans don’t want another post-deadline stretch of games without playoff aspirations. The players want to stay together and try to make that push. Heading into the season, the front office certainly hoped to be in a buyer’s position when the deadline came around.

But the reality of the situation is the Cubs have played their way into the seller’s side of things. Unless things change drastically, Bellinger will be one of the best bats on the market — and as Ross said, “players like him are hard to find.”

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