Bellinger eyes rebound in '23: 'It's definitely a big year'

December 20th, 2022

CHICAGO -- Cody Bellinger understood the news that could arrive this offseason. After a decade spent in the Dodgers' system dating back to his teenage years, the former National League MVP was at risk of being non-tendered.

The moment arrived in November for Bellinger, who had the freedom to write his next chapter. This would be a hand-picked change of scenery in which he could pull out of a three-year spiral of health woes and diminished production to prove he was still an elite player.

Bellinger found his fit in in the Cubs.

"It was, at first, a little bittersweet," Bellinger said of his split with the Dodgers. "I've been with them since 2013, right? I was 17 years old, trying on that jersey for the first time. But at the end of the day, man, I understood. I don't have any hard feelings. I get it.

"And I took it as a new opportunity or like just another page, you know? I'm excited that I'm get to be able to do this at Wrigley Field in a Cubs jersey, and I understand how special it is to play for both organizations."

Bellinger met with Chicago media for the first time via Zoom on Tuesday after signing a one-year contract last week. The deal includes $17.5 million guaranteed between his 2023 salary and a potential buyout of a '24 mutual option.

Scott Boras, Bellinger's agent, said at the Winter Meetings that there were multiyear offers under consideration, but the center fielder opted for the Cubs' structure. It gives the North Siders a low-risk, high-reward scenario for a team that hopes to improve and contend in 2023.

It also gives Bellinger the chance to show that he can still be the player he was early in his career.

"It's definitely important. I'm not going to say it's not," Bellinger said of the upcoming season. "But I think that where I'm at right now and how I feel mentally, physically, I'm in a pretty good spot. It just makes me excited to start working out with the staff and talking through things, whatever we need to talk through to get going. It's definitely a big year."

Bellinger was the NL MVP in 2019, when he also picked up a Gold Glove Award in center field. He won the NL Rookie of the Year in '17 and made two All-Star teams in his first three years. From '17-19, Bellinger hit .278/.369/.559 with a 144 OPS+ for L.A.

After launching 47 homers in his MVP-winning season, Bellinger has belted 41 across his injury-marred '20-22 tours. In that three-year span, he has hit .203/.272/.366 with a 74 OPS+ (third-lowest in MLB among hitters with at least 1,000 plate appearances).

In the past three years, Bellinger has dealt with a right shoulder disclocation, a left shin fracture, a left hamstring injury and a left rib fracture, among other minor setbacks. He said he has used this offseason to implement a strength program that is more targeted.

"I'm focused on workouts that benefit me, as opposed to just doing workouts that make people stronger," Bellinger said. "I'm doing more body-specific workouts, and overall, I'm feeling really good and really strong and allowing my body to kind of be free. [It's focusing on] what makes makes me good and being able to tap into that."

Bellinger said he liked what he heard from Cubs manager David Ross when they spoke. The long-time Dodger also reached out to Joc Pederson to get his feedback on his time in Chicago. Bellinger said the familiarity with Cubs hitting coach Dustin Kelly and assistant hitting coach Johnny Washington -- from their respective time as coaches in the Dodgers' system -- was a good selling point, too.

On top of that, Bellinger just loved the idea of playing in the Friendly Confines.

"Overall, I just wanted a good fit. I wanted to be comfortable," he said. "And I wanted to play in a good environment. Obviously, Wrigley Field has that. As an opposing player, I've always loved playing there and just love the atmosphere and the history."

When Bellinger agreed to his deal, the message he received from the Cubs was that they were "looking to continue" to add. Since then, Chicago has agreed to deals with shortstop Dansby Swanson, starter Jameson Taillon and reliever Brad Boxberger, and the club may not be done.

"It's very exciting," Bellinger said. "It just goes to show that they want to give fans some excitement and that they're signing players that want to win and have proven to win.

"And just talking to the guys these last few days, I think we've got something exciting going on."