3 reasons Belli should be Cubs’ top priority

December 14th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Jordan Bastian’s Cubs Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox

CHICAGO -- The Cubs do not need to sell on the experience of playing for the North Siders. He has witnessed the energy of Wrigley Field, knows what it is like to work with the staff behind the scenes and understands where the ballclub stands in its goal of getting back to the postseason.

“He's got nothing but positive thoughts about the organization,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said at the Winter Meetings this month. “And we have nothing but positive thoughts about him.”

Bellinger rejuvenated his career with the Cubs in 2023, and he now has a chance to capitalize on that experience with a long-term contract in free agency. As some potential Bellinger suitors have landed other outfielders -- namely, the Giants (Jung Hoo Lee) and the Yankees (Juan Soto and Alex Verdugo) -- the Cubs are standing by as the center fielder explores his alternatives.

Hoyer and his front-office team made a run at superstar Shohei Ohtani, but they are now left examining their Plan B’s after he signed with the Dodgers. There remains interest in Bellinger, but the Cubs are not looking to get into a bidding war. That said, there are plenty of reasons Bellinger should remain a top priority for Chicago. Here are three:

The perfect roster puzzle piece
Two areas of need for the Cubs are first base and center field. Chicago could target multiple players to fill those spots, but Bellinger can do both at a high level. He led the Cubs in innings at first base and in center last year while anchoring the middle of the lineup.

During the Winter Meetings, Hoyer said fielding versatile players would be “a goal” for the team under manager Craig Counsell. It creates built-in layers of depth, and Hoyer pointed to Kris Bryant, who played for the Cubs from 2015-21, as the “ultimate example” of an elite player sliding between spots.

“Kris Bryant was really an MVP player that would change positions,” Hoyer said. “I think the game has changed that way a little bit, where guys are willing to do that. I think when you have guys that can move around like Cody did last year, it really does provide a ton of value.”

Bellinger’s ability to move spots helped the rest of the Cubs’ roster function. It allowed a variety of paths for building a daily lineup based on matchups, impacting first base, third base, center field and the DH slot.

Helping PCA arrive at the right time
The Cubs have a potential Gold Glove center fielder coming soon in Pete Crow-Armstrong, MLB Pipeline’s top prospect for the club. If Bellinger returns, it could help PCA’s developmental timetable.

If Bellinger returns as Chicago’s center fielder, the Cubs would have the ability to use Spring Training to make a decision on starting PCA in the Majors or giving him more time at Triple-A Iowa. Mike Tauchman gives the Cubs a sound layer of depth in center as well, helping them avoid pushing Crow-Armstrong too fast.

There is also a scenario in which Crow-Armstrong has a great spring and makes the Opening Day roster, even with Bellinger in the fold. Bellinger’s versatility could create a timeshare in center, and PCA could learn while under his wing. Chicago wants to avoid forcing Crow-Armstrong to the Majors before the team feels he is truly ready.

Filling the production gap
It’s a relatively thin market for hitters this winter (especially if Pete Alonso stays put with the Mets). The Cubs could go after the likes of third baseman Matt Chapman or first baseman Rhys Hoskins in free agency, but both come with questions surrounding their offense. Even Bellinger carries risk, given he is coming off one strong year after a handful of injury-marred tours.

The Cubs at least have first-hand familiarity with Bellinger. He hit .307 with 26 homers, 29 doubles, 97 RBIs, 95 runs, an .881 OPS and a 133 OPS+ last year while posting incredible two-strike stats and thriving against lefties. That’s a lot of production to replace, and Ohtani and Soto are off the board.