Cody Bellinger’s 2023 rebound season with the Cubs has positioned him as one of the top players set to hit the free agent market this offseason. The 28-year-old landed second on MLBTR’s latest update to our Free Agent Power Rankings, and it’s all but a foregone conclusion that he’ll hit the market looking to secure a massive payday this offseason. If there was any doubt about that possibility, Bellinger’s agent, Scott Boras, removed it when discussing his client’s resurgence with USA Today’s Bob Nightengale. Interestingly, Boras called out the Dodgers organization for their handling of Bellinger when he wasn’t at full health.
“He was hurt, plain and simple,” Boras tells Nightengale of Bellinger’s 2021-22 seasons, when he batted a combined .193/.256/.355 in 900 plate appearances. “He has surgery, and the Dodgers asked him to play with a 35% strength deficiency, and then with COVID, he was deprived of the expert medical treatment. He didn’t have the shoulder strength. You don’t just go from a .900 OPS to a .500 OPS without understanding the impact of an injury.”
Bellinger famously injured his shoulder while celebrating a home run during the 2020 postseason. After swatting a go-ahead long ball in Game 7 of the NLCS, Bellinger and teammate Enrique Hernandez leapt and bashed their forearms together, which wound up dislocating Bellinger’s shoulder. He quickly had the shoulder popped back into its socket and continued to play through the World Series, but Bellinger underwent shoulder surgery in the offseason and didn’t look the same during 2021-22. He also dealt with a hairline fracture of his left fibula in April 2021 and later that season suffered a fractured rib when colliding with teammate Gavin Lux on a fly ball.
Fans tend to bristle at just about any public-facing comments from Boras, but in this case, injuries have long stood as an obvious and likely factor to Bellinger’s decline. The question surrounding his drop-off at the plate wasn’t so much one of whether the injuries were a factor, but rather one of whether he’d ever right the ship after struggling through a litany of injuries in under one year’s time.
The 2023 season in Chicago has rather emphatically answered those questions. Bellinger is hitting .321/.368/.546 with 20 home runs, 23 doubles, a triple and 18 steals (in 22 tries). He’s played both center field and first base for the Cubs, drawing above-average marks at each spot, and perhaps most critically has dramatically reduced his strikeout rate from 2021-22’s rate of 27.1% to a career-low 15%.
Bellinger isn’t walking nearly as often as he used to (7.2% compared to his 14.4% peak in 2019), and Statcast shows that he’s not hitting the ball nearly as hard as he did during his 2019 MVP campaign either. That season saw Bellinger average 91.1 mph off the bat with an overall 45.6% hard-hit rate; this year he’s at 87.3 mph and 30%, respectively. The drop in quality of contact is a potential red flag, but the results are undeniably impressive. When Bellinger does make hard contact, he’s managed to make the most of it.
It all sets the stage for a lucrative payday this winter, when the free-agent market will be largely devoid of productive, prime-aged hitters. In typical quotable fashion, Boras quipped that “demand is often created by rarity,” calling Bellinger a “five-tool player” and Gold Glove-caliber defender at multiple positions before adding that “…the demand for that is very, very high.” Bellinger said all the right things free agents typically espouse, about his desire to remain with the Cubs and his affinity for the stadium, fans and culture.
Nightengale also spoke with teammates Dansby Swanson and Michael Fulmer, manager David Ross and bench coach Andy Green, all of whom raved about Bellinger’s importance to the club and his remarkable season overall. The exact asking price on Bellinger won’t be clear until the offseason begins in earnest, but it’s easy to envision Boras & Co. seeking a long-term deal worth more than the hefty sums secured for fellow clients Brandon Nimmo (eight years, $162MM) and Kris Bryant (seven years, $182MM). Both began their respective contracts in their age-30 seasons; Bellinger won’t turn 29 until the All-Star break next season.