The Cubs had Seiya Suzuki back in the lineup Tuesday night after he had missed the two previous games, then they got Cody Bellinger back on the field in Iowa to begin what they hope will be a brief rehab stint. Ian Happ left the win over Pittsburgh early after his right calf “grabbed on him,” but the hope is that they won’t have to keep playing musical chairs in the outfield. Unless, of course, Bellinger isn’t in the outfield mix upon his return to Chicago.
Prior to going 0-for-3 with a strikeout in his first live action since May 15, when he injured his left knee on a leaping catch at the wall in Houston, it was announced that Bellinger would be playing first base for Iowa. During his pregame media availability at Wrigley Field, David Ross explained that move and admitted that it’s very much a possibility once Bellinger is ready for MLB action again.
“There’s a number of thoughts there,” Ross told reporters prior to Tuesday’s win over the Pirates. “Probably just easier on the knee. From everything that he’s done up to this point, the only thing that really bothered the knee was just the all-out sprint and the extension within that.
“And also, you know, Tauchman has been swinging the bat really well and held down center field pretty well, so just trying to find the best lineup when everybody gets back. Having [Bellinger], he’s been pretty darn good at first base and has been, just having another option there makes some sense…First base production hasn’t been one of our strengths so far this year.”
Let’s start with the obvious facts here, the first of which is that Bellinger has indeed played a lot of first base and has done so at a high level. It was his primary position during his first two seasons and he logged nearly 400 innings there in three subsequent campaigns even as he transitioned more to the outfield. He hasn’t played first since 2021, but how hard could it be to reacclimate?
Ross is also correct that the Cubs haven’t gotten great production from first base thus far. In fact, they’re among the worst teams in baseball with an aggregate 67 wRC+, .270 wOBA (both 29th), and nine homers (23rd). I still believe Matt Mervis is due to break out pretty soon, but a team still clinging to hopes of contending in a weak division needs to find advantages wherever it can.
All that said, I’m a little concerned about the stated reason for moving Bellinger. Most important is the health of his knee, which is clearly not completely recovered based on what Ross said about having some pain when sprinting. Given his contract situation and big offensive production, this sounds like it could be more about preserving trade value than strengthening the lineup.
Then again, Ross wasn’t lying when he said Mike Tauchman has been doing a good job at the plate. The journeyman has always worked a good plate appearance and he’s doing so again this season with a 16.7% walk rate to drive a .403 OBP. Tauchman has been more than serviceable in center as well, so it’s not like the Cubs have experienced a drastic fall-off in that regard. The only real weak spot is a complete lack of power, but that’s never been his game.
Another issue with moving Bellinger to first is that it would effectively keep Mervis from getting everyday at-bats unless it’s as the DH. A lot of naysayers will naturally point to the rookie’s poor production through 96 plate appearances, but let’s not forget that Ross used Miles Mastrobuoni in the DH role Tuesday night. If the goal is to protect Bellinger’s knee and his trade value, why not just keep him in the lineup without playing the field?
Even if he’s able to handle first base a little better than Mervis, who is certainly in a period of growth, Bellinger’s ability to play elite defense at a far more premium position is far more valuable. But if we circle back to the idea of trade value, showing everyone that Bellinger can still play first at a high level could give the Cubs a whole lot more leverage. This assumes he’s able to get back out in center once in a while as well.
Among the 16 non-NL Central teams currently within 2.5 games of a Wild Card spot, eight are in the bottom half of the league when it comes to offensive production from center. Seven are in the bottom half for first base. Five of those are in the top half for both — Rangers, Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Yankees, Blue Jays — and may not set up as great partners on a potential deal. However, Jed Hoyer may be eyeing the four teams that could improve at both spots.
The Marlins, Padres, Guardians, and Astros all fall into that category and all could have interest in a late-season rental who provides defensive versatility along with a good stick. What I found very interesting is that adding up each of these four teams’ wRC+ rankings at both first and center gives a total of either 44 (CLE, MIA) or 45 (HOU, SD). While this is a very blunt oversimplification of the situation, it provides a channel through which our little thought exercise can flow.
To that end, I excluded division rivals because it seems unlikely any of those penny-pinching teams would be interested in parting with the requisite prospects for two months or so of Bellinger’s services. The Pirates, Brewers, and Reds have made it clear that they’d like to build through their systems with as little additional payroll as possible, so trading those young players to the Cubs is probably a no-go.
I’ll close with this: Though I believe putting Bellinger at first is a sign that the Cubs are trying to maintain or boost his trade value following the injury, I am not totally dismissing the idea that they’re still hoping to compete. It’s the same strategy they followed heading into the season. Some believe Hoyer intended to sell from the jump, but that’s erroneous. While that was certainly a very real possibility, the plan was to build a team that could possibly win a weak Central without costing either financial or personnel flexibility into the future.
For those who ask whether they’d really hold onto Bellinger and Marcus Stroman sans extensions, I point to Willson Contreras. There are still a number of different ways this could all play out, so I’ll be following with a great deal of interest to see how Bellinger’s return unfolds. And then maybe how his trade return unfolds.