Will Bellinger return to Chicago? Here's what Cubs, Hoyer say

October 3rd, 2023

CHICAGO -- Through a combination of his easygoing personality, a knack for slashing a two-strike pitch into a gap, and that gorgeous swing that could launch baseballs into the sun-splashed Wrigley Field bleachers, wasted little time in winning over Cubs fans this season.

“We sat down with him on Sunday and had a long conversation,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said. “I told him, ‘It's rare to have a guy come in on a one-year deal and have that kind of connection with the fans by the middle of the season.’ It was really special.”

The big question now is whether Bellinger was a one-summer wonder on the North Side.

During his season-ending press conference on Tuesday morning, Hoyer raved about Bellinger’s play this season and expressed the desire to retain the center fielder’s services beyond this year. That is all well and good, but Bellinger has earned the ability to test the open market as one of the best bats available.

That creates a complicated scenario for the Cubs, who will face a much different landscape than last winter with Bellinger. He was coming off multiple injury-marred tours that saw his value drop to the point of being non-tendered by the Dodgers. Chicago jumped in with a one-year deal worth $17.5 million guaranteed.

This time around, Bellinger (a client of agent Scott Boras) should have lucrative, multi-year offers from a variety of suitors. The outfielder’s deal with the Cubs included a mutual option for 2024, but the expectation is that he will decline that and see what free agency holds.

“We love Cody. I think he likes it here,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “He's set himself up -- him and his family -- for a real good opportunity. And if we don't have him here, it's going to be on somebody else to produce, right?”

It will be challenging to replace what Bellinger did for the Cubs.

He was limited to 130 games due to an early-season knee issue, but while on the field he hit .307 with 26 homers, 29 doubles, 97 RBIs, 95 runs, 20 steals and an .881 OPS. Bellinger hit at a .337 (.984 OPS) clip against lefties and thrived with two strikes (.725 OPS vs. the .523 MLB average), two outs (.883 OPS) and runners in scoring position (.898 OPS).

Bellinger will surely receive down-ballot consideration for the National League MVP. He was Chicago’s top offensive performer from start to finish, while moving between center field and first base. He is precisely the kind of impact hitter the Cubs will need to add this winter, and one fans are clamoring for Chicago to keep.

“I mean, I get it,” Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts said. “We'd love to have him back. That's something that will be up to the baseball guys and the financial markets.”

In the coming weeks, Hoyer and his front office team will meet to map out their budget plans with ownership. Hoyer noted that the team plans to remain “aggressive” with its payroll, but it is not clear yet if there is a willingness to exceed the Collective Bargaining Tax threshold in order to get deals done (with Bellinger, or otherwise).

“Philosophically, we've shown a willingness to do it,” Hoyer said. “It's both a budgetary question, but it's also just, we want to make sure that, strategically, you do it at the right time. And so, we'll have those discussions.”

One thing the Cubs have working for them is the fact that Bellinger now knows what it is like suiting up for the organization.

Bellinger got to work shortly after signing last offseason, teaming up with the Cubs’ strength staff in Arizona and getting to work with hitting coach Dustin Kelly, who he knew from the Dodgers’ farm system earlier in their careers. He saw it all pay off on the field, while experiencing playing in front of packed houses at the Friendly Confines.

“You're always trying to sell free agents on what it's like to play in Chicago,” Hoyer said. “There's nothing better than having a guy experience it for a year and openly say he loves it.”

This past weekend, when the Cubs were officially eliminated from the postseason field, Bellinger said he was not sure what could come next for him.

“I really tried to enjoy these last few weeks,” Bellinger said. “Obviously, there's no prediction of the future in anything, so I really just enjoyed my time with this group of guys, with this coaching staff, playing for the Cubs organization. Wrigley Field was really special.”