'Just so excited man': Chicago Cubs thrilled about return of free agent Cody Bellinger

MESA, Ariz. − The Chicago Cubs woke up with the news Sunday morning, drove to their spring-training facility, and when they walked into their clubhouse cafeteria, the man they’ve been talking about all winter was already waiting for them.

Cody Bellinger is back.

Yep, right where he belongs.

Bellinger, who spent the winter rudely discovering that teams around the league were skeptical whether his 2023 comeback season was a fluke, agreed to a three-year, $80 million contract late Saturday night, hoping to prove everyone wrong.

It was a massive discount from the $200 million-plus contract he was originally seeking, but he now has the opportunity to show the world he’s still one of the elite players in the game with his bridge-style contract.

Bellinger will earn $30 million in 2024, $30 million in 2025 and $20 million in 2026, and will have the ability to opt out of the deal and hit free agency again after each season.

Bellinger gets a high annual salary, and the Cubs avoid a long-term commitment, protected in case he isn’t the same player that won the hearts of the fans and organization.

"Just so excited man," Cubs veteran starter Kyle Hendricks said. "I think you see the reactions in here. We've always been hoping for it. We know how much he wanted to be here. Just to get it figured out for both sides is just so amazing for our ballclub."

Chicago Cubs center fielder Cody Bellinger celebrates in the dugout after hitting a solo home run during a 2023 game against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park.
Chicago Cubs center fielder Cody Bellinger celebrates in the dugout after hitting a solo home run during a 2023 game against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park.

Bellinger, who was non-tendered by the Los Angeles Dodgers after the 2022 season, finished 10th in the MVP voting and was the Comeback Player of the Year for the Cubs. He led the team in batting (.307), RBI (97), slugging percentage (.525), and OPS (.881). His 26 home runs were the most since his 2019 MVP season.

“I was checking the (free-agent) tracker almost all offseason," Cubs infielder Nick Madrigal said, "hoping for him to come back. So it was not so much a relief, but just a lot of happiness to see him back in a Cubs’ uniform.

“We saw what he could for this team, and just everyone got so comfortable having him in the locker room, not only on the field, but he’s such a big impact in the clubhouse. I can’t imagine not having him here."

Said Cubs infielder David Bote: "He was not just a fan favorite, but he was a favorite in here too."

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Cubs fans pleaded with ownership all winter to sign Bellinger. The Cubs’ players lobbied all spring for the front office to bring him back. Finally, after a three-month stare down, the Cubs’ patience paid off.

With 11 teams downsizing their payroll this winter, including five teams slashing their payroll by at least $40 million, the market Bellinger anticipated never materialized.

It made no sense for him to keep sitting out when he wanted to return to the Cubs all along, knowing that the desire was mutual.

"He was such a leader for this team," Hendricks said. "It’s just amazing things got figured out, and obviously a huge, huge piece of this team. Keeping the core together is going to be so much fun now. …

"There was a little void in here for sure before he came back."

The Cubs, who finished just one game out of a playoff spot last year with their September collapse, now believe they have the missing piece they need to win the NL Central. They hired manager Craig Counsell from the Milwaukee Brewers with a record eight-year, $40 million contract, signed Japanese starter Shota Imanaga to a four-year, $53 million contract, brought in veteran reliever Hector Neris ($9 million), veteran outfielder David Peralta (minor league contract) and traded for infielder Michael Busch.

You know the impact of Bellinger when his arrival can push center fielder Pete Crow-Armstrong back to the minors, and he appeared to be as genuinely thrilled as anyone in the clubhouse.

"It was a great way to wake up," said Crow-Armstrong, who constantly praised Bellinger for being a mentor. "He reaches all aspects of this team and hopefully he brings that same energy this year. I have all of the faith in the world that he will."

The Cubs, who shared hugs with Bellinger all morning before he underwent his physical, said that besides his bat and glove, his cool, calming influence was instrumental in the Cubs’ success. It was rare, they said, to ever see him show his emotions.

"I noticed that he’s never too high, never too low," Crow-Armstrong said. "So being able to manage the good parts of his day, and when the bad ones come, he’s the same dude. Just like when teams start hitting, that’s pretty contagious, too."

Considering the Cubs were able to bring back Bellinger on a bargain price, it allows them to hit the free-agent market again. Starters Jordan Montgomery and Blake Snell are still on the market, along with third baseman Matt Chapman and DH J.D. Martinez.

The Cubs know that Bellinger instantly makes them contenders again for the NL Central title, but why not make another move to make them the favorites?

The Cubs front office isn’t making any promises, but just like with Bellinger, they’ll patiently wait for their price, and if they like what they see, they’ll pounce.

But for now, the Cubs will celebrate getting the man they felt they needed the most if they want to be playing in October.

"It’s nice to keep it going," said shortstop Dansby Swanson, their big free-agent acquisition of a year ago, "but at some point we’ve still go to improve. I feel like this offseason, we’ve taken those steps in a bunch of different ways. …

"Now, it’s just time to make all that work."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Chicago Cubs thrilled about Cody Bellinger's return after free agency