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Will Cody Bellinger deliver on new deal with the Chicago Cubs?

February 25th, 2024

His upside is undeniable. His downside is impossible to discount.

It’s a calculation teams in the market for hitting help were forced to consider when pursuing Cody Bellinger this offseason. Ultimately, the Cubs decided that the upside was worth the risk, as they agreed Sunday to bring back Bellinger on a three-year, $80 million contract. Bellinger reportedly has opt-outs after the first and second years of the deal.

Following Shohei Ohtani’s signing with the Dodgers, Bellinger’s was the most coveted bat remaining on a meager free-agent market following a resurgent 2023 campaign in Chicago that suggested Bellinger was beyond the hitting and injury woes that plunged him to the depths of his final three seasons in Los Angeles. The Cubs are banking on those seasons being a blip along Bellinger’s return to MVP form, rather than the norm, as they re-sign their best position player from last season.

From MVP to below the Mendoza Line

Bellinger didn’t just struggle from 2020 to ’22. He was at times one of the worst hitters in baseball, with numbers that would’ve seen many players relegated to the minors. His struggles began in 2020, the season after he won NL MVP. Bellinger slashed .239/.333/.455 during the COVID-shortened season.

Then came the injury that’s widely blamed for sparking his downfall. In Game 7 of the 2020 NLCS en route to a Dodgers World Series title, Bellinger hit a go-ahead home run against the Atlanta Braves over the right-field wall at Globe Life Field. After touching home, he exchanged celebratory forearm smashes with teammates AJ Pollock and Kiké Hernández.

One of those smashes left his right shoulder dislocated. He then required offseason shoulder surgery and proceeded to have the worst season of his career.

In 95 games in 2021, Bellinger slashed .165/.240/.302, and his WAR dropped from an MLB-best 8.6 in 2019 to -1.7 just two seasons later. He improved in 2022 but not by much, slashing .210/.265/.389 in 144 games. In light of the drop-off, his days with the Dodgers were numbered.

What was the source of Bellinger’s struggles?

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what triggered Bellinger’s decline. It started in 2020 during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic that, frankly, knocked most of us off our A-game. While Bellinger’s shoulder dislocation is frequently cited, a fractured fibula suffered in April 2021 didn’t help his cause.

Also, he continued to take swings during his injury rehab, a mistake some have theorized is the true culprit in the power-sapping degradation of his mechanics. At the same time, Bellinger’s plate discipline suffered. He struck out in 29.8% of his at-bats in the 2021 and 2022 seasons, a considerable spike from the 19.4% in his 2019 MVP campaign.

Contrast those final three seasons in Los Angeles to 2019, when Bellinger was the most feared hitter in baseball. That season, he slashed .305/.406/.629 with 47 home runs, 115 RBI and 15 stolen bases. His 351 total bases and 21 intentional walks were the most in MLB, and his home-run tally exceeded the total of his next three seasons, which saw Bellinger hit 41 over the course of 295 games.

Bellinger’s adjusted approach leads to success with Cubs

Going into 2023, the Cubs bet that the MVP version of Bellinger was still attainable for the then-27-year-old, signing him to a one-year, $17.5 million prove-it deal. And Bellinger proved it. Enough so that he declined his option for 2024, a decision that allowed him to hit the free-agent market looking to sign the first long-term contract of his career.

All that said, the 2023 Bellinger wasn’t the masher who averaged 37 home runs in his first three MLB seasons, which included Rookie of the Year honors as well as his MVP trophy. No, in Chicago, Bellinger’s swing was different, and so was his approach. Making contact and putting the ball in play became the priorities. His exit velocity declined as his contact rate and batting average went up.

The power was still there; it just wasn’t the primary objective. The result was a .307/.356/.525 slash line with 26 home runs and 97 RBI alongside a career-high 20 stolen bases. Bellinger’s batting average was also a career-best. As a result, he earned a Silver Slugger award, a 10th-place finish in MVP voting and regained confidence in his swing, which landed him his new deal.

What version of Bellinger will the Cubs get?

The expectation now is that Bellinger will be able to maintain some version of that 2023 performance throughout this contract — and perhaps even add back a bit more of the lost power. Of course, there is no guarantee that will happen.

For the aforementioned reasons, Bellinger’s contract comes with considerable risk for Chicago. Undoubtedly, the dearth of hitting available on this winter’s market, agent Scott Boras’ hardball prowess and Bellinger’s tantalizing ceiling all worked in his favor in free agency. Plus, for the Cubs, this signing retains their best hitter from last season.

Even so, the question moving forward now becomes: Will Bellinger deliver?

This content was originally sourced and posted at Yahoo! Sports – News, Scores, Standings, Rumors, Fantasy Games »
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