Cody Bellinger is probably the top rental hitter who’ll be traded in the next two weeks. The Cubs have gotten excellent production for their $17.5MM rebound flier on the former MVP.
Bellinger went into Wednesday night’s action carrying a .308/.365/.523 batting line over 266 plate appearances. That’s well shy of his career-best 2019 season but right in line with his next-best work as a Dodger. By measure of wRC+, it’s the third-strongest rate production of his career and not far off his .267/.351/.581 rookie showing that ranks as his second-best season.
A left knee contusion cost him around a month between May and June. Since being reinstated from the injured list, Bellinger is raking at a .366/.408/.570 clip. The Cubs eased him back in defensively at first base but have kicked him out to his customary center field spot this month.
Bellinger isn’t hitting for the kind of power he once did, but he has seemingly made a concerted effort to get more balls in play. After striking out around 27% of the time between 2021-22, he’s going down on strikes at just a 17.7% clip this season. Last winter’s Brandon Nimmo contract illustrated how much value the league places on the handful of above-average defensive center fielders who can hit. For the first time in three seasons, Bellinger again seems to fall into that category.
The Cubs should and very likely will trade him. They’re six games under .500. Bellinger is sure to decline his end of a mutual option for next season, so he’s an impending free agent. The demand for his services this summer figures to outweigh the value of the draft pick they’d receive if he declines a qualifying offer and walks in free agency.
If Bellinger indeed changes uniforms in the next couple weeks, let’s identify some fits (teams listed alphabetically within tiers):
USA Today’s Bob Nightengale has already linked the Astros to Bellinger. Houston general manager Dana Brown is on record about his desire to add a left-handed bat to a very righty-centric lineup. Even with Kyle Tucker entrenched in right field and Chas McCormick playing very well in center, there’s enough uncertainty for Bellinger to be a fit.
Righty-swinging Corey Julks has gotten the bulk of the playing time in left field. He’s on a hot streak and has a decent .279/.326/.402 showing on the year, but he’s not the kind of impact bat who’d firmly rule Houston out on upgrades. It’s tough to know what to expect from Michael Brantley given his repeated shoulder setbacks. Acquiring Bellinger while pushing McCormick to left field and Julks to the bench would balance the lineup from a handedness perspective and add some overall depth to an offense that has been closer to average than expected.
San Francisco president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi is familiar with Bellinger from their time in L.A. The Giants made a run at him in free agency last winter. They didn’t get him then, but the need is just as acute now. San Francisco has used rookie Luis Matos as its top center fielder over the past month. The 21-year-old is a very promising prospect but has started his MLB career with a middling .258/.327/.326 performance.
Bellinger would be a significant offensive upgrade and a defensive boost for an outfield that ranks 22nd in MLB at -8 Outs Above Average. Mike Yastrzemski could move to the corner opposite Michael Conforto, while Austin Slater stays on hand as a right-handed complement to the all lefty-hitting outfield. If Mitch Haniger returns before season’s end, he’d be a corner/designated hitter option.
The Yankees are desperate for offensive help. Harrison Bader is one of the few productive regulars in their Aaron Judge-less lineup, but the corner outfield has been manned by depth types like Jake Bauers, Willie Calhoun (both now on the injured list), Billy McKinney and Isiah Kiner-Falefa. Even after Judge comes back, one of the corner outfield spots is open.
Acquiring Bellinger would push the Yankees past the $293MM fourth competitive balance tax line unless the Cubs paid down the entire deal (thereby increasing the prospect return). New York has been reluctant to exceed that rather symbolic marker — there are no additional non-monetary penalties for doing so — but ownership and the front office could feel increased pressure to add to a floundering roster that is now outside the playoff picture. It’s easy to see the appeal of adding Bellinger’s left-handed bat to the Yankee Stadium short porch and a lineup that skews heavily to the right side.
Next Tier Down
Any interest on Philadelphia’s part would probably be contingent on Bryce Harper holding up at first base. If the Phils are convinced he’s an everyday option there, they could kick Kyle Schwarber to designated hitter and leave open a corner outfield spot for Bellinger. (The Phils could also pursue Bellinger as a first base option if Harper can’t play the field, though that’d leave Schwarber in a corner outfield spot.) It might not be the top priority — rotation depth and perhaps third base are bigger concerns — but it’d be viable if Harper can defend. Phils’ president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has never been afraid to push in for big names.
Texas has gotten strong production out of Leody Taveras in center field. They’ve patched things together in left field and at designated hitter, though, relying mostly on Ezequiel Durán to carry the offensive load wherever he’s played. Travis Jankowski has been a solid fill-in as part of that rotation, but Bellinger carries far more offensive upside than the journeyman Jankowski does.
Center field looked like a problem for Boston not too long ago. Adam Duvall has struggled since returning from a fractured wrist. Enrique Hernández is not having a good season. The Sox have gotten their awaited Jarren Duran breakout, though. The 26-year-old former top prospect is hitting a career-best .313/.364/.508 over 269 trips to the plate. He’s not a good defensive center fielder, but with Alex Verdugo and Masataka Yoshida locked into the corner outfield, there’s nowhere else for Duran to play. Adding another lefty-hitting outfielder to the mix is probably too much of a luxury buy for a club that could use pitching and middle infield help.
Mickey Moniak has played well since assuming the center field role after Mike Trout’s hamate fracture. A short-term outfield of Taylor Ward, Moniak and Hunter Renfroe could theoretically be upgraded upon, but the Halos are a fringe contender at this point and Trout is expected back in August or September.
Milwaukee hasn’t gotten a ton out of center field. Joey Wiemer has 12 homers and is playing good defense but has a .291 on-base percentage. Milwaukee could consider upgrades there or at first base, where Bellinger would be an upgrade on the currently injured Rowdy Tellez. They might have to pay a heavier prospect return to keep Bellinger within the division, though.
The Guardians could certainly use an offensive jolt in the outfield. Myles Straw is one of the worst hitters among everyday players. He’s typically at least playable because of elite glovework and baserunning, but his public defensive metrics this season are average. This could work, although Cleveland is arguably too fringy of a contender to pursue a rental whom they’ll have little chance of re-signing. They’re only a game and a half back of Minnesota in the AL Central but they’re two games under .500.
Miami is relying upon 27-year-old rookie Dane Myers as a stopgap center fielder. Jazz Chisholm Jr. should be back soon to reclaim center. The corner outfield tandem of Jesús Sánchez and Bryan De La Cruz is fine but not overwhelming. The Fish could use a little more offense, but outside help seems likelier to come on the infield or behind the dish. Bellinger’s contract could also be problematic for a low-payroll Miami club that probably isn’t keen on paying a $5MM option buyout at the start of next offseason.
This one is contingent on Byron Buxton’s health. If Minnesota doesn’t feel Buxton will be able to play anything other than designated hitter all season, there’s a case for making a run at Bellinger and pushing Michael A. Taylor to the fourth outfield role. If they’re still holding out hope for Buxton’s late-season return to the outfield, this probably doesn’t work.
This would be very funny but it’s not happening.
San Francisco strikes me as the best fit for Bellinger altogether, assuming they’re still right in the Wild Card mix on August 1. The Giants have a lot of good position players but are short on star talent. One can argue whether the current version of Bellinger is an All-Star caliber player or a bit below that. Still, the chance to improve the outfield defense while taking some pressure off Matos to immediately hit against big league pitching should be a goal for Zaidi and his front office.