Cody Bellinger Named Players Choice NL Comeback Player, Next Comes Payday

Over his final three seasons with the Dodgers, Cody Bellinger slashed .203/.272/.376 with a 78 wRC+ and 41 homers. In his 2019 MVP campaign, he hit .305/.406/.629 with a 161 wRC+ and 47 homers. The dramatic drop was caused by shoulder and leg injuries, all of which may have led to confidence issues and other psychological struggles. So while health was most certainly the driving force of his turnaround in 2023, shifting his mental perspective with a change of scenery probably helped Bellinger as well.

He shook up his offseason routine, hiring a personal trainer and trying Pilates for the first time, and he rediscovered the swing that had him on what looked like a Hall of Fame track through three seasons. The results were immediately obvious and continued throughout the season as Bellinger led the Cubs in nearly every offensive category. His .307 average was the best of his career and his 97 RBI, 95 runs, and 4.1 fWAR were all the second-highest marks he’s ever set.

That performance will net him a very nice payday at some point this offseason, but it has already earned him the MLBPA Players Choice award for NL Comeback Player.

Now back to that contract and whether the Cubs will find a way to keep Bellinger around for more than one season. After initially sounding very bullish — even giddy — about the possibility during the season, Jed Hoyer seemed to downplay a reunion during his end-of-season presser in October. A lot of it will come down to the cost, and I don’t mean that as saying the Cubs are going to be cheap this winter.

We know Hoyer is a stickler for value, and there’s a certain point at which it gets really difficult to justify paying huge money for 22nd-percentile exit velocity and 10th-percentile hard-hit rate. At the risk of angering the anti-metrics crowd, the fact of the matter is that athleticism doesn’t typically improve beyond the late 20s. If those batted-ball numbers continue, Bellinger is at risk of losing a great deal of power over the course of a long deal.

Now, who knows, he could counter that with more strength training to maintain above-average pop well into his 30s. The Cubs and other teams are going to have to weigh the price tag against what Bellinger is now and what he’ll be six-plus years down the road. Opinions on what that will be worth vary greatly even among scribes for the same publication.

Jim Bowden of The Athletic ranked Bellinger No. 6 on his list of the top 40 free agents, projecting him to get a deal worth $144 million. Keith Law, on the other hand, has Bellinger right behind Shohei Ohtani and predicts a deal of nearly $200 million for six or seven years. Even pushing the latter figure out to its fullest has it around $50 million more in total and $4 million more in AAV. I tend to think the Cubs would actually prefer a higher AAV if it came with a shorter duration, say $150 million for five years.

The other factor here, and this might be even more important in a sense than the numbers themselves, is that Bellinger may not be looking to sign quickly. Super-agent Scott Boras prefers to survey the market for as long as possible to ensure the best deals for his clients, and the Cubs aren’t in a position to wait things out when it comes to constructing a roster that has to win in a meaningful way next season. That could see them falling out of the Bellinger competition before it’s even started.

Then again, they’ve still got a few days of negotiation exclusivity before free agency opens in earnest and things really get hot. Hoyer has typically moved in silence when it comes to working out deals, so maybe he’ll surprise us with a weekend announcement. In all likelihood, however, we’ll just have to follow the rumors and reports for the next several weeks.

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