Cody Bellinger signs 3-year $80-million deal with Cubs a year after Dodgers let him go

Cubs center fielder Cody Bellinger gestures to the crowd after being acknowledged by the Dodgers prior to a baseball game.

A year after the Dodgers turned their backs on Cody Bellinger, the mercurial left-handed slugger has reportedly agreed to a three-year, $80-million contract with the Chicago Cubs.

Bellinger is coming off a tremendous bounce-back season with the Cubs in 2023 that put him in position for the free-agent payday. As the offseason progressed, however, it became clear that many teams were reluctant to make a long-term commitment to him because of the wild fluctuations in his production with the Dodgers.

Bellinger's deal with the Cubs was first reported by ESPN late Saturday night. The contract reportedly includes opt-out clauses after each of the first two years.

Bellinger, a center fielder and first baseman, had extremely poor seasons in 2021 and 2022 with the Dodgers after a middling COVID-shortened 2020 season and three tremendous campaigns to begin his major league career from 2017-2019. He was the National League Most Valuable Player in 2019 and the Rookie of the Year in 2017.

Bellinger's agent, Scott Boras, pointed to injuries in 2020 and 2021 as a primary reason for his decline. "A healthy Cody is the five-tool MVP Cody," Boras has said more than once. Still, Bellinger's market dwindled as several potential suitors — including the San Francisco Giants, New York Yankees, New York Mets and Toronto Blue Jays — acquired less expensive center fielders.

Read more: Dodgers respond to Scott Boras' remarks on Cody Bellinger; Boras clarifies his stance

The market for Bellinger shrank in December and well into the new year. The Yankees' trade for Juan Soto removed them from the outfield sweepstakes, and the Giants filled their center field void by signing South Korean import Jung Hoo Lee to a six-year, $113-million contract, outbidding the Cubs and San Diego Padres.

Other potential suitors opted for relatively inexpensive, short-term options. The Blue Jays re-signed center fielder Kevin Kiermaier to a one-year, $10.5-million contract and added the versatile Isiah Kiner-Falefa to a two-year, $15-million deal. The Mets signed center fielder Harrison Bader to a one-year, $10.5-million contract and the Mariners have spent the offseason whittling salary.

It soon became apparent that a return to the Cubs was Bellinger’s best option. Chicago's plan to turn center field over to rookie Pete Crow-Armstrong hit a snag when the former Studio City Harvard-Westlake High star appeared overwhelmed in a brief September audition, going 0 for 14 with seven strikeouts. Crow-Armstrong is still considered one of the best prospects in baseball.

Bellinger is one of five top free agents represented by Boras who went into the last week of February without a contract. National League Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell, fellow left-handed starter Jordan Montgomery, Gold Glove third baseman Matt Chapman and slugging designated hitter J.D. Martinez remain unsigned.

Drafted by the Dodgers in 2013 out of high school at age 17, Bellinger was spectacular in his major league debut in 2017, hitting 39 home runs and driving in 97 runs while winning the NL Rookie of the Year award in a unanimous vote.

The next two years, it appeared Bellinger could be on a Hall of Fame track, hitting 25 homers while playing in all 162 games in 2018 and winning the NL MVP award in 2019 while posting a slash line of .305/.402/.629. Only 23, Bellinger hit 47 home runs and drove in 115 runs.

Read more: MLB free agent tracker: Elite starters Blake Snell and Jordan Montgomery remain unsigned

His performance began to slip in 2020, the COVID-shortened season in which the Dodgers won the World Series. Bellinger batted .239 and his on-base-plus-slugging percentage fell to .789 from 1.085 a year earlier.

A highlight was his home run that put the Dodgers ahead in Game 7 of the NL Championship Series against the Atlanta Braves. But while returning to the dugout he suffered a shoulder injury banging forearms with teammate Kiké Hernández, an ailment that contributed to his decline the next two years.

Bellinger's numbers cratered in 2021 amid numerous swing changes and extended slumps. He batted a shockingly low .165 with a .542 OPS, hitting only 10 home runs while missing two months after suffering a hairline fracture in his left leg the first week of the season.

The pedestrian production extended through 2022 when his slash line was .210/.265/.389 in 144 games. Bellinger's salary had jumped through arbitration to $11.5 million in 2020, $16.1 million in 2021 and $17 million in 2022. He had one more year of arbitration but the Dodgers declined to make an offer, and as a free agent he signed a one-year, $17.5-million deal with the Cubs.

Dodgers decision-makers were at a loss to explain Bellinger's struggles, with president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman saying, "It’s one of the more dramatic swings that I’ve ever been a part of."

“I wish we could have done more to support him and get some more consistency for him,” manager Dave Roberts said. “But sometimes you just don’t have any answers.”

Read more: Dodgers couldn't make Cody Bellinger a star again. 'Sometimes you just don't have any answers'

The one-year bridge contract was Bellinger's best option, and the Cubs paid him $12.5 million in 2023 with a $5-million buyout for 2024, which Bellinger exercised by turning down a one-year, $25-million option. And why not? He resurrected his career in his one season at Wrigley Field, winning the comeback of the year award, and felt he'd set himself up for a big contract.

It turns out Boras did negotiate a large average annual value of $26.67 million, but the length of the deal is shorter than anticipated. The opt-out clauses give Bellinger the freedom to seek a longer deal if his resurgence continues. The contract calls for Bellinger to be paid $30 million this season, $30 million in 2025 and $20 million in 2026.

Advanced metrics suggest Bellinger had extremely good luck in 2023, when he hit .307 with 26 homers, 97 RBIs and 20 stolen bases. His average exit velocity of 87.9 mph was the lowest of his career and his .268 expected batting average was far lower than what he posted. He did cut back on his strikeouts from a career-high 27.3% in 2022 to 20.1% in 2023.

Although his career in the batter's box has been a roller coaster, Bellinger has consistently been an elite defensive player in center field and at first base, enhancing his value. A defining image of the Dodgers' World Series run in 2020 is of Bellinger making a leaping catch at the wall to rob the Padres' Fernando Tatis Jr. of a homer in the NL Division Series.

He's also an exceptional baserunner and has 82 stolen bases in 102 tries, a success rate of better than 80%.

The Dodgers pivoted to rookie James Outman in center field last season, like Bellinger, a left-hander. Outman met expectations, batting .248 with 23 homers, 70 RBIs and 16 stolen bases while finishing third in rookie of the year voting. Outman, 26, was paid the league minimum of $722,000 and is under team control through the 2028 season.

Read more: Plaschke: Cody Bellinger’s Dodgers homecoming a harsh reminder of a preventable split

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.