A deep dive into free agent CF/1B Bellinger

November 29th, 2023

With the 2023 season behind us and the Hot Stove already burning, we're taking a close look at some of the most prominent players on the free-agent market.

Position: CF/1B
Previous team: Chicago Cubs
Age (as of Opening Day 2024): 28
2023 stats: .307/.356/.525, 26 homers, 97 RBIs, 20 stolen bases, 95 runs, .881 OPS, 133 OPS+

Follow all of the latest Bellinger rumors here.

It wasn’t long ago that Bellinger was viewed as one of the best players in baseball. During the first three years of his career, Bellinger earned 2017 National League Rookie of the Year honors, a pair of All-Star selections, a Gold Glove, a Silver Slugger and of course, the '19 NL Most Valuable Player Award.

In 2020, Bellinger and the Dodgers captured the World Series title, but his numbers during the pandemic-shortened season weren’t quite up to his lofty standards. They took a far bigger dip in '21, and although he showed some improvement in '22, he hardly resembled the star slugger that had taken the league by storm only a few years earlier.

The Dodgers non-tendered Bellinger after the 2022 campaign, so he bet on himself by signing a one-year deal with the Cubs, confident he would be able to rebound and take another shot at the free-agent market.

The bet paid off. Bellinger hit a career-high .307 for Chicago as he earned NL Comeback Player of the Year honors, registering his best on-base and slugging percentages since his MVP season. Bellinger -- who led the Majors with 75 RBIs from July 1 through the end of the season -- became just the seventh player in Cubs history to join the 20-20 club, joining Ronald Acuña Jr., Shohei Ohtani and Freddie Freeman as the only players in the Majors to hit at least .300 with 25 homers and 20 steals in 2023.

What will it all mean for Bellinger in free agency? The 28-year-old is widely considered to be the second-best hitter on the open market behind Ohtani, putting him in position to sign a nine-figure deal.


Bellinger’s family history traces back to the Bronx, where his father, Clay, was a role player with the Yankees from 1999-2001. But the Yankees’ interest in the former NL MVP has more to do with their need for offense -- specifically a left-handed bat -- than any sentimentality. New York has a vacancy in center field, and although Jasson Domínguez could return to center on a full-time basis by 2025, Bellinger could play there next season before moving to first base once Anthony Rizzo’s contract expires. The biggest hurdle to a Bellinger-Yankees match could be Juan Soto, whom the Yankees might prefer as their top target this offseason.

San Francisco went big-name hunting last winter, missing out on Aaron Judge and nixing its deal with Carlos Correa due to an issue with his physical. Many expect the Giants to pursue more stars this offseason, with Bellinger among the leading candidates. The Giants’ .695 OPS ranked last in the NL in 2023, thanks in part to the outfield’s .682 OPS, which also ranked last. Ohtani is the best available bat on the market, but Bellinger might be a strong fit for San Francisco’s lineup, as well.

Chicago rolled the dice on Bellinger last winter after he was non-tendered by the Dodgers, giving him a one-year, $17.5 million deal. Bellinger rewarded the Cubs with a bounce-back season, but now it’s going to cost a lot more over a lot more years to keep him on the North Side. Bellinger thrived at Wrigley Field, posting a .902 OPS with 14 homers in 66 games, so a return to Chicago -- where the Cubs remain thin in center field and at first base -- would be beneficial for both parties.

Count the Mariners among the teams with a need for a left-handed power bat, making Bellinger a logical fit for the lineup. Julio Rodríguez has center field locked down, but Bellinger could play a corner spot in Seattle’s spacious outfield while also seeing time at first base (and possibly designated hitter), so there would be no shortage of at-bats for him.

Blue Jays
Kevin Kiermaier’s likely departure opens up a spot in center field, where the Blue Jays would love to add a left-handed bat. Whether Toronto can afford to sign a free agent of Bellinger’s magnitude, however, might depend on what the Jays' plans are for potential extensions for Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, who are both two years away from free agency. Given the state of the AL East, the Blue Jays will likely look to add at least one big name this winter as they try to chase down their first division title since 2015.

“When Bellinger is right, he is a five-tool MVP-caliber player with the ability to impact the game from the batter’s box, basepaths and multiple positions. With a hitting approach designed to lift the ball to the big part of the field, he spent his last two seasons in Los Angeles swinging and missing way too much on elevated fastballs; this limited his ability to tap into his power consistently and get on base enough to use his legs. A change of scenery and/or return to full health unlocked the hitting ability that made him an MVP three seasons prior. This season, he made more contact than he has in recent years and started to fill up the stat sheet again. The biggest question mark is whether he will be able to stick with this approach going forward. If he can, you are getting one of the more unique skill sets in the game: a run-producing left-handed hitter who can steal bases and give you plus defense in center field and at first base.”

My colleague Mike Petriello recently dug into Bellinger’s fascinating season, which saw him post terrific numbers despite ranking in the bottom 10 percent of the league in hard-hit rate -- a steep drop from 2019, when he ranked in the 86th percentile. Bellinger did cut down on his swing-and-miss last season, but as solid as it was, it was still a far cry from his MVP peak four years ago.

Bellinger’s career has followed a similar path to that of Kris Bryant, who won the 2015 NL Rookie of the Year, the 2016 NL MVP Award and was part of the Cubs’ World Series team that same season. Bryant didn’t have the same stark dropoff that Bellinger experienced in 2021-22, but he did battle some injury issues in his years leading to free agency. Their overall numbers are comparable: Bryant had a .278/.376/.504 slash line with 167 home runs and 487 RBIs in 884 games prior to free agency, while Bellinger has a .258/.335/.493 slash line with 178 homers and 519 RBIs in 875 career games. Bryant signed a seven-year, $182 million deal with the Rockies after the 2021 season.