The Cubs’ Cody Bellinger didn’t get the deal he sought, but he’s where he wants to be

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MESA, Ariz. — Before the Chicago Cubs’ final game of the season last year, Cody Bellinger chatted with team president Jed Hoyer. The team was already eliminated from postseason contention and Bellinger wasn’t in the lineup. The two joked about his first few spring training games in Arizona. Bellinger had flailed at pitches and his at-bats looked rough. Were the poor seasons he’d just experienced going to continue?

It turned out to be just another reason to ignore March results. The year Bellinger spent with the Cubs went as swimmingly as one could hope, though by the end of it nobody knew what the future would hold. The former MVP might have been in line for the monster contract he sought, but it likely wasn’t going to be handed out by Hoyer.

Bellinger had high hopes for his free agency. He’d seemingly re-established himself as an offensive force and strong defender at multiple positions. After entering free agency having yet to turn 30, it would be natural for a former MVP to garner a deal that would push seven or eight years. He acknowledged those expectations, admitting “there’s definitely that thought” and “ultimately, that’s the goal.” But after a winter of talking “continuously” with his agent, Scott Boras, that goal ultimately went unmet.

Not that it was overly evident on Wednesday afternoon at the press conference heralding Bellinger’s return to the Cubs.

“At the end of the day,” he said, “I’m super excited how it all worked out.”

How it all worked out was Bellinger signing a three-year deal worth $80 million with the Cubs. Bellinger has opt-outs after each of the first two years. It gives him a chance to hit the market again next winter at just 29 and possibly earn that elusive long-term deal.

“(I) didn’t hide the fact internally that I did want to come back here,” said Bellinger, who zeroed in on the Cubs once he realized where this market was headed. “I love Wrigley Field, I love the fans. Me and my family enjoyed Chicago. When it was coming to the end and everything was coming to light, this was something I definitely wanted and both sides agreed on. I’m super happy it worked out the way it did.”

The Cubs are the team where he found his old stroke and showed that perhaps he can once again be a superstar. After signing a one-year pillow contract with the team prior to the 2023 season, he posted a 134 wRC+ over 130 games and earned enough down-ballot MVP votes to finish 10th.

Along with his strong offensive performance, Bellinger played quality defense for the Cubs at center field and first base, two big areas of weakness for the team in 2022. Still, Bellinger couldn’t snag that big-time deal he seemed destined for not long ago.

Boras pinned the blame on various factors. He pointed out that last offseason, there were 17 deals signed for four years or more. The offseason prior to that there were 18. In total, just four of those deals were from players who hadn’t spent the previous season with MLB teams. This offseason, there’s been just 11, with only six going to players who spent last season in MLB.

Boras also recalled the three seasons that Bellinger battled through various injuries (2020-2022) and how this market had certain “irregularities” including nearly a dozen teams dropping payroll as reasons why this market wasn’t as robust. It didn’t help that two gunslinger heads of baseball operations — the San Diego Padres’ A.J. Preller and  Philadelphia Phillies’ Dave Dombrowski — weren’t spending like they had in recent winters.

Still, Boras didn’t come close to calling Bellinger’s deal a poor outcome. Instead, he focused on the positive that Bellinger was back where he wanted to be — and could still find a way to cash in in the near future.

But doing so would require Bellinger to replicate his 2023 season, which came with the caveat of some of his questionable contact numbers. According to Statcast, Bellinger was in the 27th percentile in barrel rate, 22nd percentile in exit velocity and 10th percentile in hard-hit rate. He set career lows in each category.

How aware was Bellinger of talk that his strong 2023 season was being questioned due to these underlying metrics?

“I hear it,” he said. “I kind of brush it off. There’s a lot of different variables that go into it and not to look at one certain stat to dictate a whole season. I definitely trust myself as a baseball player to go out every single day and put my best product on the field. I trust that the positive results are going to come. I believe in myself.”

It can be dangerous to look at these types of metrics and assume failure is coming. But it emerged as a concern for teams, including the Cubs.

Boras insisted these stats were being misused.

“Those numbers have not been appropriately addressed,” he said.

Boras pointed to Bellinger’s improved exit velocities when ahead in the count. The agent also noted Bellinger’s strong two-strike approach. His .287 batting average with two strikes was second in baseball, second only to two-time batting champion Luis Arraez. Coincidentally, Arraez would also be dismissed if looking only at his Statcast data.

Boras’ point was that the numbers without further detail don’t tell the full story. Consider how Bellinger remade himself last season, when he looked to simply put the ball in play more with two strikes. Though he was successful, the adjustment also led to weaker exit velocity and hard contact numbers.

When it comes to his quality of contact in two-strike counts, Bellinger had an average exit velocity of 86.2 mph and a hard-hit rate of 25.3 percent. But in non-full counts where he was 0-0 or ahead, his hard-hit rate jumped to 35.3 percent and his average exit velocity jumped to 90 mph, which is better than the league average. While those last two numbers aren’t eye-popping, they’re not as concerning as the overall picture painted by Statcast.

Even with all the metrics showing Bellinger wasn’t striking the ball with as much authority as in the past, he posted a .218 ISO last season, his highest since his monster 2019 and third-best for his career, providing the kind of pop that the Cubs lineup badly needed.

“In other words,” Boras said, “the power is still there.”

To Bellinger, the discourse about his underlying numbers is all noise.

“I trust myself as a baseball player to go out every single day and do what I can to help the team win,” Bellinger said. “That’s ultimately what I strive to do. I fully believe in myself as a baseball player.”

The underlying numbers likely impacted Bellinger’s market significantly. But they also led to a reunion with the Cubs, something that clearly left both sides thrilled. How long it lasts won’t be of concern until next winter, especially if Bellinger can prove his 2023 resurgence wasn’t a fluke.

That bounceback season wasn’t enough to get the Cubs to the playoffs. The team fell one game short after a woeful September collapse. Bellinger wants to be a part of the reason the Cubs return to postseason play for the first time in a full year since 2018.

“We were so close last year,” Bellinger said. “For me to come back here with almost the same team and experience playoffs in Chicago is something I want to do, something I want to experience. It’s a big part of the reason I did want to come back here. I’m glad it all worked out.”

(Top photo of Cody Bellinger: Matt York / Associated Press)





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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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