Cody Bellinger is back: Chicago Cubs re-sign left-handed outfielder to give lineup a big boost

Cody Bellinger is back: Chicago Cubs re-sign left-handed outfielder to give lineup a big boost

MESA, Ariz. — Dansby Swanson tried to suppress a grin as he stood in front of his locker Sunday morning in the Chicago Cubs’ spring training clubhouse.

The Cubs reached an agreement with outfielder Cody Bellinger overnight on a three-year, $80 million deal, a source confirmed, which will pay him $30 million each of the first two years and $20 million in the third year. Bellinger, 28, has opt-outs available after the first and second years.

Swanson had been among the most vocal Cubs expressing hope of Bellinger re-signing. But the deal is not yet official, pending a physical, so the shortstop initially played coy when the topic came up.

“Obviously we can’t really comment on it, but like we’ve been saying all spring, just the impact that he had on our group last year from a personality standpoint, from a versatility standpoint, and obviously, his ability to produce at a high level really made our team and put ourselves in position to have some success last year,” Swanson said Sunday. “And that’s something that we’ve been looking forward to being able to get back.”

A reunion between the Cubs and Bellinger felt inevitable all offseason.

Even as the free-agent market moved at a glacial pace the last 3 1/2 months, the Cubs seemed like an ideal fit for Bellinger, coming off a stellar bounce-back season.

“He’s part of this club, he’s one of us,” right-handed pitcher Kyle Hendricks said Sunday. “There was a little void in here for sure before he came back.”

Multiple players said they had already seen Bellinger, who lives nearby, at the Cubs’ Mesa complex Sunday morning. Nick Madrigal planned to shoot Bellinger a message to welcome him back before unexpectedly seeing him in the clubhouse. Swanson grinned as he offered a “no comment” when asked if he had talked to Bellinger yet. Hendricks read the news on social media when he woke up Sunday morning and exchanged hugs with the slugger after crossing paths in the team’s facility later that day. Nico Hoerner’s girlfriend broke the news of the deal to him through a text he saw in the morning that simply said, “Belli!!”

Hendricks called Bellinger a huge piece to the Cubs and said that “he’s going to be one of the best players for us for sure.”

“We’ve always been hoping for it, not expecting it in any way, but we’ve known where he’s at,” Hendricks said. “We know how much he wanted to be here and to get it figured out for both sides is so amazing for our ballclub now.

“Our focus is in this room always, we’re focused on the group, getting ourselves ready and going to play, but we pay attention to what’s going on on the outside a little bit, especially with things like Belli when he’s out there.”

The Cubs lineup immediately becomes more dynamic with Bellinger.

He gives the Cubs a lefty slugger they can count on in the middle of their order. They first addressed their left-handed power deficiency last month when they acquired infielder Michael Busch, the reigning Triple-A Pacific Coast League MVP, from the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“Just watching (Bellinger’s) body of work last year from early January here at the complex through the end of the year, he played absolutely every game he was able to and multiple positions and just created so much flexibility for our lineup, hit situationally — he checked every box,” Hoerner said.

The Cubs are trying to build upon last year under new manager Craig Counsell, this time looking to avoid a late September collapse that kept them out of the postseason by one game. Bellinger’s deal of potentially up to three years aligns with the current Cubs’ core built around Nico Hoerner, Ian Happ, Seiya Suzuki — all of whom have their guaranteed deals also expiring after the 2026 season — and Swanson, entering the second of his seven-year contract

Bellinger’s annual average value (AAV) of $26.667 million puts the Cubs’ competitive balance tax (CBT) at nearly $231 million, just under Major League Baseball’s $237 million threshold for 2024.

Jed Hoyer’s patience paid off as the president of baseball operations did not let the Cubs be used as leverage or to negotiate against themselves. In the end, the acquisition provides not only a huge offensive boost but is a big win within the Cubs’ clubhouse where players viewed Bellinger as a missing piece. The deal also works out well for both sides. Bellinger has two more opportunities to test free agency before he turns 31 thanks to the opt-outs, while the Cubs give themselves a better chance to win in 2024 but don’t compromise the path for prospects to get big-league opportunities.

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By adding Bellinger, the Cubs also lessen the potential variance of production with the risk that comes from relying on younger, unproven players versus someone with his pedigree who is coming off a 4.1 fWAR season in 130 games last year.

“You’re a little more protected against something going wrong, against an inevitable injury so they add win, they add floor, they make your players better,” Counsell said. “They protect your other players. There’s a lot of benefits from guys like that and that’s why they’re so hard to find.”

Bellinger’s presence means at-bats taken from some combination of center field, first base or the designated hitter. Counsell acknowledged the outfield mix could now become a little tighter.

Alexander Canario will get work at all three spots, Counsell said Sunday, and touted his value as a right-handed hitter against lefties but is “still figuring out where does that fit in the lineup and what position.”

Pete Crow-Armstrong is also among the players in camp in line to be impacted by Bellinger’s return, though he was never a lock to make the opening day roster.

Crow-Armstrong remained steadfast throughout the offseason in saying he would love to see Bellinger return. He reiterated that sentiment Sunday.

“You have the captain of this team (Swanson) wanting him back, saying it publicly in front of fans and then you’ve got guys like me who really responded to the way he carried himself in here, too, so he reaches all aspects of this team,” Crow-Armstrong said. “I noticed that he’s never too high, never too low, so being able to manage the good parts of his days and then when the bad ones come, it’s like he’s the same dude.

“Just like when teams start hitting that’s kind of contagious, I think in a similar way that’s pretty contagious too.”

Bringing back Bellinger is a good step to get the Cubs in the postseason after signing Japanese left-hander Shota Imanaga and veteran reliever Héctor Neris. With an improved pitching staff and a Cubs offensive core largely intact from a lineup that helped produce one of baseball’s best records from late June into early September, there shouldn’t be any excuses if they fail to lock down a playoff spot in 2024.