Cody Bellinger Reunion Feels More Possible Every Day

At one point during the season, it felt like something close to a guarantee that the Cubs would be able to work out an extension to keep Cody Bellinger in Chicago. Jed Hoyer was visibly giddy when talking about the impact the former Rookie of the Year and MVP had made both on the field and in the clubhouse.

“Belli knows how we feel about him, that’s for sure,” Hoyer said with a broad grin. “We’ve loved having him here and…I don’t comment on negotiations in-season, but I’d just say that: He knows how we feel about him. He’s been wonderful and I think it’s been a really good fit.”

That was in early August. By the time the season came to a close and Bellinger was about to enter free agency as the consensus second-ranked hitter on the market, hope had dimmed significantly. Some of that was the fact that he wanted to test the waters rather than work out a team-friendly deal, but the real issue was that his salary projections far exceeded the Cubs’ supposed comfort level.

Now, however, things are cooling for Bellinger’s projections as his market doesn’t appear to have broadened in the wake of Shohei Ohtani‘s epic deal with the Dodgers. If anything, Bellinger’s prospects have narrowed. The Blue Jays and Giants, both “finalists” in the Ohtani sweepstakes, aren’t looking to make the knee-jerk reaction to sign a fallback option in haste.

Agent Scott Boras was probably trying to draft behind Ohtani, using his astronomical price tag to make even $300 million for Bellinger seem possible. It never was, of course, but the funny thing is that Ohtani getting $700 million effectively ruined that strategy. After all, you can’t benefit from drafting if that semi you’re tailing is 10 miles ahead of you.

It’s possible Bellinger’s plan the whole time was to wait as long as possible before signing, something we’ve seen with other Boras clients. The longer he waits, though, the more likely it seems that his asking price will drop to a level Hoyer’s free-agent-value algorithm deems acceptable. I’d guess that to be somewhere in the neighborhood of six years and $150 million with a stretch to a Dansby Swanson-level deal that just adds another year at a very similar AAV.

That’s hardly a coup since the Cubs would still need to make several other moves in addition to simply running it back with a key player on an 83-win team. Bellinger would, however, address a number of the needs Hoyer is currently working to solve for: first base, center field, left-handed pop, certainty as prospects arrive. The Cubs probably could have done better had they been willing to break the bank or swing a huge trade, but they absolutely could do much worse.

This is the point where I note that I’m still pretty skittish when it comes to Bellinger’s production over the life of the contract. But he gets results in spite of poor batted-ball numbers and the combination of his defense with a strong hit tool and plate approach keeps his floor high even if the ceiling may be limited.

At a projected $186 million payroll as things currently stand, the Cubs have a roughly $51 million buffer before hitting the first luxury tax threshold. Bellinger would eat up half of that and the addition of a big starter like Shōta Imanaga or Jordan Montgomery should cost around $20 million. If we assume the front office will try to leave a little room for trades as they always do, those two moves alone would represent the entirety of the offseason.

Unless, that is, we believe what Bruce Levine said about the Cubs being willing to spend as much as $70 million even without landing Ohtani. They have a little more flexibility with several deals falling off the books after the 2024 season, one of which could end up being Rhys Hoskins. He makes sense on a Bellinger-ish pillow deal after sitting out last year with a torn ACL, plus he’d slot in well at either first or DH.

That gives the Cubs freedom to bring Pete Crow-Armstrong along at a measured pace sans pressure, something Craig Counsell spoke about during his introductory press conference. It also means the whole thing about Christopher Morel playing first is a moot point. But what if Morel can figure out his footwork at third to stop airmailing throws 10 rows into the bleachers? And yes, I realize the netting prevents that.

If Nick Madrigal was able to work on his skills at the hot corner to develop into a more than acceptable defensive presence, why can’t Morel? At the risk of getting my hands dirty trying to polish this turd any further, I think I’m starting to convince myself that there’s a decent path forward. Maybe instead of Montgomery or Imanaga, it’s a deal with the Guardians for Shane Bieber — who’s working with Driveline this winter to improve his velo and recapture some of that old magic — that would keep costs and commitments lower.

Signing Bellinger would mean blocking at least two of the Cubs’ top three outfield prospects for the next three years, which almost forces Hoyer to make trades. Kevin Alcántara and Owen Caissie both seem like too much to give up for one year of a righty who’s fallen off quite a bit from his Cy Young days, but the Guardians are also reportedly willing to listen to offers for Emmanuel Clase. Josh Naylor could also be on the block and the Cubs have shown interest in him.

Rather than presenting these as likely scenarios, I prefer to think of them as general concepts for what the Cubs can and should be doing. As exciting as it is to see the minor league system being recognized as one of the best in the game, the Cubs aren’t subsistence farmers. What I mean is that they can’t simply operate in a manner that sees them producing only enough for their own use. Some of those prospects have the most value in what they’ll bring back in trades.

So even though Carter Hawkins spoke recently about being careful not to block too many prospects with their signings, holding spots open for multiple players who might not ever pan out would be the height of foolishness. The Cubs need to find a way to balance their immediate and long-term futures, a task that becomes much simpler if they’re able to add a known commodity to the middle of the lineup.

In the meantime, we’ll probably see a few more underwhelming moves as the Cubs wait for the market to come to them.

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