Cody Bellinger made three plate appearances for Triple-A Iowa last night, marking the first game of his minor league rehab assignment. The former NL MVP has been out of action since May 16 due to a left knee contusion, but appears to be making good progress towards returning after close to a month on the 10-day injured list.
Bellinger played first base for Iowa, which Cubs manager David Ross said (to the Chicago Sun-Times’ Maddie Lee and other reporters) was partially due to Bellinger still having some difficulty fully extending his knee during all-out sprinting. Even when Bellinger returns to the Cubs lineup, Ross left the door open for the outfielder to see more time at first base, noting that “[Mike] Tauchman’s swinging the bat really well and held down center field pretty well. So [we’re] just trying to find the best lineup whenever Belli gets back.”
First base isn’t at all an unfamiliar position for Bellinger, as he has 262 career appearances as a first baseman during his seven MLB seasons. However, he made only four appearances at first base in 2021 and none at all in 2022. Bellinger’s injuries and struggles late in his stint with the Dodgers obviously factored into this decreased usage, not to mention the fact that Freddie Freeman took over full-time first base duty in 2022.
But, using Bellinger at first base was also something of a waste of a strong outfield glove, as Bellinger won a Gold Glove and Fielding Bible Award for his right field work in 2019, and has been an above-average defender in center field. This glovework and strong baserunning helped Bellinger continue to earn playing time in Los Angeles even amidst his two-year funk at the plate in 2021-22.
The Dodgers opted to non-tender Bellinger this past offseason, and the Cubs inked him to a one-year deal worth $17.5MM in guaranteed money. That includes a $5MM buyout of a $25MM mutual option, but it would seem quite unlikely that both sides would choose to exercise their option, as Bellinger was prioritizing one-year contract offers in order to return to the open market next winter with a better platform season on his resume.
Chicago’s bet on a Bellinger rebound has to some extent paid off, as prior to the month-long IL stint, Bellinger hit .271/.337/.493 with seven homers in his first 163 PA in a Cubs uniform. The sample size is still too small to draw an overall conclusion about a bounce-back, however, and Bellinger did have only a .512 OPS in the 49 PA prior to his IL placement, so some regression might have already been at play.
There hasn’t been any indication that Bellinger’s knee problem could prevent him from returning to the outfield altogether, so the first base usage might indeed be just the Cubs’ way of getting him onto the field a bit earlier and start ramping up for his eventual return to the Major League roster. Tauchman has also been solid (.274/.403/.323 in 78 PA) for the Cubs since his minor league contract was selected on the same day as Bellinger’s IL placement.
In the bigger picture, the 29-37 Cubs aren’t too far out of the picture in the weak NL Central, but the team might again be looking at being sellers at the trade deadline. A 32-year-old journeyman like Tauchman probably isn’t in the Cubs’ long-term plans, so Tauchman in center field might be a preview of what Chicago’s post-deadline outfield could look like if Bellinger is dealt elsewhere.
Assuming Bellinger returns healthy and keeps hitting, he’ll be a very interesting trade chip for the Cubs to offer at the deadline, and there’s bound to be plenty of interest given how many teams explored signing Bellinger last winter. Bellinger as a center fielder naturally has a lot more value than Bellinger as a first baseman, yet if sprinting continues to be any kind of an issue, first base is at least a fall-back position that allows him to contribute in some capacity.