Bellinger declines qualifying offer from Cubs

November 14th, 2023

CHICAGO -- is going to pen his name on a new free-agent contract later this offseason, but the Cubs still had some necessary paperwork to finish up with the star outfielder in the meantime.

On Tuesday, Bellinger declined the one-year, $20.325 million qualifying offer that the Cubs extended for the 2024 season. That was the expected outcome when Chicago made the offer last week -- a required step in order to guarantee Draft pick compensation next summer should Bellinger sign with a new team.

At the GM Meetings last week, Bellinger’s agent, Scott Boras, made it clear where things stood with the Cubs and his client at the moment.

“When he came to Chicago, he just feasted on Major League pitching,” Boras told reporters in Arizona. “Really, I think Chicago got the comforts of a full Belli. So they’re going to have to loosen their belts to keep Bellinger.”

Teams extended a qualifying offer to seven eligible free agents last week, giving them until Tuesday accept or decline the one-year offer. Since this system was established in 2012, only 13 of 124 players accepted the offer going into this offseason.

In Bellinger’s case, this was more of an insurance play for the Cubs. A year ago, Chicago similarly offered catcher Willson Contreras a QO, but gained the No. 68 pick in the 2022 MLB Draft (following the second round) after he declined and signed with the Cardinals. The Cubs then used that Draft selection on pitcher Jaxon Wiggins out of the University of Arkansas.

The Cubs signed Bellinger to a one-year contract worth $17.5 million guaranteed last offseason, gambling on his potential as a high-reward comeback candidate. He then authored a strong bounceback campaign and declined his end of a $25 million mutual option for ‘24, setting himself up for a lucrative long-term contract this winter.

“There’s no prediction of the future in anything,” Bellinger said at the end of the season. “I really just enjoyed my time with this group of guys, with this coaching staff, playing for the Cubs' organization. Wrigley Field was special.”

Bellinger’s career was off and rolling with the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 2017, an MVP trophy in ‘19 and a World Series ring in ‘20 -- all with the Dodgers. He made two All-Star teams and won a Gold Glove with Los Angeles, but injuries and diminished production led to his being non-tendered last offseason.

The Cubs prioritized adding Bellinger last offseason, giving him a chance to embrace a change of scenery with a hitting group that included a familiar voice in hitting coach Dustin Kelly (formerly a coach in the Dodgers' system). Bellinger thrived, posting a career-best .307 average across 130 games for Chicago.

Bellinger bounced between center (84 games) and first base (59) for the Cubs, ending the year with 26 homers, 29 doubles, 97 RBIs, 95 runs, 20 steals and an .881 OPS. He was the NL’s Player of the Month for July (hitting .400 in 26 games) and was the seventh player in Cubs history to enjoy a season with at least 20 homers and 20 steals.

Bellinger was one of four MLB players this past season to hit at least .300 with 25-plus homers and 20-plus stolen bases, alongside the Braves’ Ronald Acuña Jr., the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani and the Dodgers’ Freddie Freeman. Bellinger also posted a .984 OPS against lefties and led the Majors with 75 RBIs from July 1 through the end of the season.

Earlier this month, Bellinger’s peers recognized his season by naming him the NL’s Comeback Player of the Year in the 2023 Players Choice Awards. He picked up a Silver Slugger Award in the utility category last week.

It goes without saying that losing Bellinger would be a blow to the Cubs' lineup, but the team will have to weigh the cost of bringing him back in free agency against the alternatives in that market or available via trade. One way or another, Chicago will be on the hunt for impact offense in the coming months.

“He had an incredible season,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said in October. “Yes, I do think that the contributions he made will have to be replaced. Obviously, we'd love to bring him back. But in a world where that's somewhat uncertain, we do have to figure out a way to replace that offensively.”