Bellinger caps resurgent season with Comeback Player of the Year honors

November 28th, 2023

CHICAGO -- Given all the accolades stacked up early in his big league career, calling the Cubs’ aggressive pursuit of the outfielder last winter a gamble does not feel exactly right. Chicago was banking on a healthy Bellinger thriving with a change of scenery and rediscovering his star power.

Bellinger did just that for the North Siders on a one-year deal in 2023, playing like an MVP candidate again and earning the National League’s Comeback Player of the Year Award. Bellinger and Liam Hendriks (American League) took home the annual honor on Tuesday in balloting by’s writers.

“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,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said in October. “It was really special. And he deserves a lot of credit for how hard he plays and the way he played. I think that's what created that.”

This award puts a period on Bellinger’s remarkable year.

Bellinger was also named the NL’s Comeback Player of the Year by his peers as part of the ‘23 Players Choice Awards. The outfielder picked up a Silver Slugger Award in the utility category, given his production in center field and at first base. Bellinger also finished 10th for the NL MVP Award in voting by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.

Now, Bellinger is one of the most intriguing free agents on the market this offseason after declining a mutual option for ‘24 and also declining a one-year qualifying offer from the Cubs. Those were the expected decisions for the 28-year-old Bellinger, who has a chance to sign a lucrative, long-term contract after his strong showing last season.

At the end of the season, Bellinger was asked if he had a message for Cubs fans, who quickly embraced him as a favorite.

“I had a great experience,” Bellinger said. “I love Wrigley Field. It's a beautiful place. They're great fans, very passionate, very loyal. And I really had a great time playing for the Cubs' organization.”

Last offseason, the Dodgers made the decision to non-tender Bellinger after a string of injury-marred seasons from their homegrown star. An array of health setbacks contributed to him hitting .193 with a .611 OPS across the ‘21-22 campaigns. In that span, he logged a 66 OPS+, meaning he performed 34% below the MLB average offensively.

With clear needs in center and at first base, the Cubs prioritized adding Bellinger and did so via a one-year pact worth $17.5 million guaranteed. He would have a chance to reconnect with hitting coach Dustin Kelly (formerly a coach in the Dodgers’ system), adding a dose of familiarity for a player donning a new uniform for the first time.

In 130 games, Bellinger hit at a career-best .307 clip, while registering his best on-base percentage (.356) and slugging percentage (.525) since 2019, when he was the NL’s Most Valuable Player. Bellinger had 26 homers, 29 doubles, 97 RBIs, 95 runs and 20 stolen bases for the Cubs, while posting a .984 OPS against lefties and leading the Majors with 75 RBIs from July 1 through the end of the season.

Bellinger missed a month between May and June due to a bone bruise in his left knee. He sustained that injury after landing awkwardly on a spectacular leaping catch at the wall to rob Kyle Tucker of an extra-base hit in Houston on May 15.

Bellinger was the NL’s Player of the Month for July (hitting .400 in 26 games) and was the seventh player in Cubs history to have at least 20 homers and 20 steals in a season.  He was also one of just four MLB players in ‘23 to hit at least .300 with 25-plus homers and 20-plus stolen bases. The others on that list were NL MVP Ronald Acuña Jr., AL MVP Shohei Ohtani and Freddie Freeman.

“He had an incredible season,” Hoyer said in October. “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.”