In my last article, I set out to identify one move that would make sense for each team. As I looked at the rosters of each team, I tried to find a fitting landing spot for Cody Bellinger to no avail. There really wasn’t any team that needed him, and that seems like an odd thing to say about a former MVP coming off a 4-win season.
This isn’t your average former MVP, though. Cody Bellinger is an enigma.
At his apex in 2019, Bellinger was an absolutely flawless player. He played three positions at a high level, he was a perfectly solid baserunner, and the offensive profile was pristine. His swing decisions were excellent, with a below average chase rate and an above average swing rate on pitches in the zone. The power he displayed was simply incredible, a fact that’s evidenced by his production as well as his raw power numbers. Bellinger’s slugging percentage was excellent, he mashed 47 home runs in the season, and his exit velocities were well above-average. If you wanted to nitpick, you could argue that Bellinger’s contact rates were mediocre in that season, but his larger-than-life swing was always going to make it difficult for him to be an elite contact hitter. He looked like a prodigy, and the Dodgers expected him to be a key piece for the next decade.
But things fall apart. Nothing lasts forever, and that was certainly true about Bellinger’s Dodgers tenure.
After dislocating his shoulder in the 2020 NLCS and fracturing his fibula early in 2021, Cody Bellinger completely fell apart at the plate. As he attempted to work through the injuries, he ended up developing poor mechanical habits which sapped the power from his swing, a fact noted by Tieran Alexander in a 2022 feature he wrote for Prospects Live. He was barely above replacement level in the years following the abridged 2020 season, ending his Dodgers tenure on a terrible note.
In just three short years, Cody Bellinger went from winning the NL MVP to getting non-tendered. It was a truly unprecedented fall from grace. In the three seasons following his MVP win, Bellinger went on to accrue 1.0 wins above replacement. That is the lowest mark of any MVP since 1965, when Zoilo Versalles won the AL MVP and proceeded to put up -1.4 wins above replacement in the three seasons that followed. It was a complicated situation, and one that led him to the Cubs on a prove-it deal.
In 2023, he managed to rediscover himself in Chicago, putting up his best offensive performance since 2019. He managed to win a Silver Slugger in center field, slashing .307/.356/.525, hitting 26 home runs, and driving in 97 runs. All of those marks were his best since 2019, and they provided hope that Bellinger was back for good. But there are severe warning signs that have essentially frozen his market, making him a truly confounding player.
For one, the power is still not back. His production gave the impression that he was back to being the slugger that everyone expected in Los Angeles, but his average exit velocity was actually lower than it was in 2021 and 2022. His top-end exit velocities were closer to 2019, but they still weren’t at the same level that they once were.
Furthermore, his swing decisions were still suboptimal. After his injury in 2021, Bellinger began to overcompensate by chasing pitches outside of the zone more often. That trend did not change in 2023, despite Bellinger’s significantly improved performance.
The real differentiating factor for Bellinger in 2023 was his ability to make contact. As mentioned previously, even when he was in his prime, Bellinger was never an elite contact hitter. That completely changed in 2023, largely due to mechanical adjustments he made with Dustin Kelly, a Cubs’ hitting coach. But Bellinger has to unlock his power more consistently to return to form, and that’s a tough bet for any franchise to make.
Scott Boras is going to demand a king’s ransom for Bellinger, and Cody’s going to want the opportunity to play centerfield everyday. Alas, it’s time to embark on the difficult endeavor of finding teams with the money and the motive to sign Bellinger. Here we go!
1. Chicago Cubs
The Cubs have remained involved in the Cody Bellinger market since the World Series concluded. It makes perfect sense, they were the team who gave him a chance to rebuild his career, and he was fantastic for them in 2023. However, there’s a real possibility he has priced himself out of their range. As I mentioned before, Boras is a notoriously hard bargain, and he will make sure his clients get every last penny that they can. With Pete Crow-Armstrong waiting in the wings, the Cubs don’t need to spend a premium to retain him if they don’t want to. The onus is on Boras to meet them in the middle.
2. Toronto Blue Jays
After the Cubs, the Blue Jays are the team who has been the most involved in the Cody Bellinger market. A couple weeks ago, Toronto re-signed Kevin Kiermaier to a one-year deal, potentially complicating their interest in Bellinger. But Kiermaier could be a fourth outfielder, and adding Bellinger would significantly boost a depleted Jays lineup. The inconsistencies that plague various hitters in the lineup, as well as the loss of Matt Chapman, have left Toronto exposed heading into 2024. If Toronto wants to capture the AL East, they need to make a big splash, and there aren’t many many options left that are better than Cody Bellinger.
3. Seattle Mariners
Seattle’s offseason has been absolutely baffling from start to finish. First, they traded away Eugenio Suarez for a minimal return, forcing them to start Luis Urias everyday. Then, they traded away Jarred Kelenic to Atlanta in what can only be described as a salary dump, leaving them with Dominic Canzone in the outfield. The additions of Luke Raley and Mitch Haniger help mitigate that issue, but Raley’s high-whiff approach could easily flounder in Seattle’s remarkably pitcher-friendly stadium, and Haniger hasn’t had a full season of above average production since 2021. As currently constructed, the Mariners lineup is paper-thin, and they desperately need impact bats. Enter Cody Bellinger.
The Mariners haven’t been involved in the Bellinger market yet, but the fit is perfect. If they can unlock Bellinger’s power, they’d have another power bat to add to a lineup which currently features two 20-homer hitters. Add another upgrade at third by trading away Bryan Woo, and you’re looking at a team who can seriously challenge for an AL West crown in 2024.
4. San Diego Padres
If you look at the Padres’ current depth chart, they have two outfielders listed: Fernando Tatis Jr. and Jose Azocar. They need outfielders, and badly. However, the Juan Soto trade indicates that they may not expect to be contenders next season. They also have Xander Bogaerts, Manny Machado and Tatis Jr. locked into long-term deals, so they may not be interested in committing more money to a long-term deal just yet. But if they are willing to spend again, he’s the best option for them in the outfield. They’re going to need a lot more than Cody Bellinger in order to make the playoffs next year, but adding him would certainly be a step in the right direction.
5. New York Yankees
I’ll be frank, I don’t expect the Yankees to end up with Bellinger. Acquiring Juan Soto effectively filled the Yankees’ need for a slugger in the outfield. The trade for Alex Verdugo also added some much need depth to their outfield, and with Jasson Dominguez expected to contribute in the majors this season, adding a big money outfielder like Bellinger just isn’t necessary for the Steinbrenners. However, they’ve been a somewhat significant presence in Bellinger rumors from the outset of the offseason, so I’d be remiss to rule them out entirely when looking over his potential suitors.
Now it’s time to put on my insider hat.
If I had to enter in a crystal ball, I’d predict Cody Bellinger returning to Chicago. Pete Crow-Armstrong‘s brief cup of coffee last season didn’t inspire incredible amounts of confidence, despite his pedigree. They were able to find a formula for success that works for Bellinger, and I doubt they’d be unwilling to make that bet again. If Cody maintains his success from 2023 and Pete Crow-Armstrong looks like the top 20 prospect he was touted as, perhaps Seiya Suzuki could be moved to DH, and Christopher Morel could transition into a utility role. The Cubs have the roster flexibility to accommodate him, and bringing him back into the fold would be a fantastic move for them.