The Cubs officially made their first move on the free-agency chess board Wednesday, signing former Dodgers slugger Cody Bellinger to a one-year $17.5 million deal. The former Rookie of the Year and 2019 NL MVP will slot in as the Cubs’ everyday center fielder and could provide much-needed juice from the left side of the plate if he returns to form.
Bellinger does come with some significant injury baggage and his production dropped off dramatically after suffering a shoulder injury while celebrating a home run during the 2020 playoffs. That alone makes him a good fit because it sounds like a prototypical Cubs kind of injury. Who can forget Sammy Sosa throwing out his back while sneezing, Jose Quintana slicing his finger while washing dishes or Brandon Morrow hurting his back while putting on pants?
The 27-year-old Bellinger has plenty of time to work his way back to a better level of production than he’s shown over the last two seasons. His shoulder issues have really hampered his production at the plate, but looking at some player comparison trajectories gives me reason for optimism. The data collected and displayed below is only through the 2021 season, but you can see how both Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber were productive during their age-27 seasons.
While Bellinger’s 2022 performance didn’t offer much promise to the naked eye, there were some indicators that improvement is taking place. He played in 144 games and slashed .210/.265/.389 with an 83 wRC+, all of which were much better than in ’21.
The best-case scenario of this deal is that Bellinger rediscovers his 2017-20 form. But if the Cubs add some other solid pieces — like a shortstop, DH, and catcher — Bellinger doesn’t need to be anything close to great at the plate to have an impact. His glove alone makes him better than their options in center this past season.
There’s another scenario dancing around my head, one fueled by Cubs-induced pessimism developed after many losing seasons. It’s possible Bellinger plays well in 2023 but the Cubs fail to capitalize on his resurgence and he gets flipped at the trade deadline for some decent prospects.
On the whole, though, I’m optimistic about this deal. The Cubs are getting a very talented hitter who once looked like one of the best in the game. While one season at this price may be a little steep, the Cubs get a great deal of potential without giving up any future prospects. There’s no such thing as a bad one-year deal and it’s possible Bellinger can bring a little excitement to Wrigley in 2022.