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MESA, Ariz. — Can a change of scenery truly help a former MVP rediscover his old form? Ask the man who managed Cody Bellinger for his first six seasons in the big leagues, and he’ll tell you it very well could.
“I was just excited for him to have a change of scenery,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said of Bellinger, who signed a one-year, $17.5 million deal with the Cubs this winter. “I know [Cubs manager] David [Ross] well, I know [Cubs president of baseball operations] Jed [Hoyer] really well, and I think that he’s going to thrive in that environment.”
Bellinger’s signing came a few weeks after he was designated for assignment by the Dodgers. The entire situation constituted something of a fall from grace from Bellinger over the last couple of seasons. He made his debut on April 25, 2017, and proceeded to hit 39 home runs and post a 138 wRC+ en route to winning the National League Rookie of the Year Award. Two years later, Bellinger hit a whopping 47 homers, recorded an insane 161 wRC+ and took home the NL MVP.
However, just three years after that, Bellinger was on the market after Los Angeles declined to even extend him an offer in his last year of arbitration. It’s a move that would’ve seemed unfathomable on the Dodgers’ side a couple of years ago, but it was a move they felt necessary when considering his price tag.
“I think it was one of those things that it was an end of an era,” Roberts said. “I’ve had the great opportunity to get to know Cody really well, really intimately. And I think, personally, it was a little bit that I was disappointed in the sense that we couldn’t get him back to realizing his MVP caliber of play.”
Having the kind of success Bellinger had to start his career is never a bad thing for a player, especially not when that player reaches the big leagues at 21 years old. But wanting to continue to play at that level can have a mental effect on that player, too.
“I think the main thing for Cody is once you win Rookie of the Year, you win an MVP, now, you set a certain expectation for yourself,” Roberts said. “I think that trying to stay in the moment versus trying to accomplish and achieve something that he’s already done before are things that he had to fight with constantly. I can’t even appreciate that type of pressure.”
Still, Roberts believes there’s bounce-back potential for Bellinger. He knows the kind of worker Bellinger is, and at the very least he was still “a plus defender through the good and the bad with his bat.”
Roberts also believes injuries Bellinger sustained over the last three years — right-shoulder surgery in 2020, a fractured left fibula early in 2021 — forced him to compensate for any lingering problems. Now that Bellinger, who’s still just 27, is seemingly past the health problems, Roberts thinks there’s potential for a rebound.
“With this offseason, it was a healthy offseason for him,” Roberts said, “so the hope is that he could just kind of work on his mechanics and build up his strength and be ready to go.”
Roberts hopeful for 2023 return
Remember that viral moment at the end of last spring training, where Cubs manager David Ross told Ethan Roberts he’d made the Opening Day roster? As great as that moment was, Roberts in in a completely different situation when Opening Day 2023 rolls around a little under six weeks from now.
The Cubs placed Roberts on the 60-day injured list Friday, an obvious move considering he’s still recovering from mid-July Tommy John surgery. That will obviously keep him on the IL through the first couple months of the season, but there’s no guarantee Roberts pitches at all for the Cubs this year.
Right now, Roberts told CHGO, he’s in his fourth week of his throwing program, which has had him throwing up to 75 feet for a week. After two more weeks at that distance, Roberts said he’ll spend three weeks throwing from 90 feet, then from 105 feet, then from 120 feet, then a two-week de-load, and then from 120 again before more pitching work becomes involved. Roberts is hopeful he’ll get to pitch in 2023, though he’s also confident in the plan the Cubs have laid out for him.
“I’m going to do all I can,” Roberts said. “I’m feeling really good. If I get to speed up, I would love it. If not, I respect what they want to do.”
Roberts’ actually didn’t throw a pitch after April 29 last season. Right shoulder soreness that he’d been trying to push through ended up forcing him on the 10-day IL in early May. The Tommy John surgery came as a result of an elbow injury sustained during a rehab outing in which he only threw four pitches.
Between the two injuries and now through a long recovery, Roberts — who said he’s usually a “pick-it-up-and-throw-it kind of guy” — has had to learn how to be patient.
“I was throwing the other day, and I’m supposed to be at 75 feet; on my fifth throw I was at 90, and I had to scoot back in,” Roberts said. “I was feeling good that day, and they were like, ‘Yo you gotta chill.’ And we have to maintain a certain velocity on our throws and stuff, and I was like, 10 [mph] over, and they were like, ‘Dude, you need to slow down.’ I did a little bit of research on my own, and from month six to months nine, which I’m right smack in the middle of, is the most vulnerable time for TJ. So, I’m trying to pump the breaks a bit.”
While he’s still got a lot of recovery time ahead of him, Roberts’ ultimate goal is to get back to helping the Cubs as quickly as possible. He knows they took a chance on him a year ago. He wants them to know they didn’t make a mistake.
“I know that what I bring to the table is important, but I feel like I have to prove that again — and I’m going to,” Roberts said. “I’ve put them in a bad spot, and I hate that I got hurt. It sucks. But I’m going to prove to them that I’m worth it again.”
- Roberts’ move to the 60-day IL came as a result of the Cubs agreeing on a one-year, major league deal with Edwin Ríos. Ríos played in 112 games over parts of the last four years with the Dodgers, mostly manning the corner infield spots and working as the designated hitter. The 28-year-old slashed .244/.293/.500 in 86 at-bats with Los Angeles in 2022.
- Ryan Jensen, on Marcus Stroman giving him advice during a bullpen: “It was awesome. I turn around and see him right there after my bullpen is over. Knowing he was watching me the whole time was pretty cool. And then having him actually asking to take a moment with me and help me out. He was just helping with my mechanics and gave me some tips of what he does. Obviously, he’s defined himself as one of the best starters in the big leagues, so just having that moment with him was surreal. I’ll never forget it.”
- Nico Hoerner, on top prospect Pete Crow-Armstrong saying Hoerner embodies “Cubbie baseball”: “I don’t think that’s something you really set out to do. You just be the best version of yourself, and hopefully, that’s what it means to be here. Do whatever you do well at the highest level and show up every day ready to work and treat people well along the way and go from there.”
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