5 questions Bellinger's return raises for Cubs, NL Central race

February 27th, 2024

As many of us had suspected for most of this offseason -- even if we thought it would happen a lot sooner -- Cody Bellinger has agreed to a deal to return to the Cubs, per sources. (The club has not confirmed the deal.)

The Cubs had felt for most of this offseason like a team that was one or two moves short -- particularly with how aggressive they were in hiring manager Craig Counsell away from the NL Central rival Brewers -- and bringing back Bellinger fills a hole that was starting to seem particularly gaping.

The three-year, $80 million contract came out far differently than most experts thought it would heading into the offseason, and its opt-outs (after each of the first two seasons) are particularly noteworthy. Exactly how long Bellinger is going to be a Cub is a bit up in the air. It’s undeniably big news. But it also raises almost as many questions as it answers.

Here’s a look at a few matters yet to be determined: with the Cubs, with Bellinger and with the rest of the NL Central, in the wake of the big addition.

1) Was this always how it was going to turn out?

This was, in fact, the second consecutive offseason we all spent several months trying to figure out where Bellinger would land, but in the end, the Cubs always made the most sense. After being non-tendered by the Dodgers, Bellinger rebuilt his career at Wrigley Field in 2023 and the Cubs, who certainly felt like they were going to be aggressive, clearly were hoping to welcome him back.

The Blue Jays and Giants seemed like potential destinations, but Toronto re-signed Kevin Kiermaier and added Justin Turner, while San Francisco brought in Jung Hoo Lee and Jorge Soler. In other words, the Cubs were in many ways the only chair left for Bellinger, particularly this late in the offseason. Considering Bellinger was a Cub last year, will we even remember he ever hit free agency this season?

2) What does this mean for other Cubs?

Just when Cubs fans were getting excited about Pete Crow-Armstrong’s Rookie of the Year chances, it sure looks like MLB Pipeline’s No. 16 prospect is going to be starting the season with Triple-A Iowa. Bellinger’s ability to play multiple positions could theoretically leave a space for Crow-Armstrong, but the quickest path for the talented prospect to get regular at-bats is to head down to Des Moines.

Mike Tauchman is now the fourth outfielder -- and a pretty good one, at that -- unless Brennen Davis is finally healthy and can take the spot from him. More to the point, the Cubs have clear outfield depth now and don’t need to rush Crow-Armstrong if they don’t have to. But that said: If Bellinger sticks around for a few years -- and we’ll get to whether that’s going to happen in a second -- one of the best center-field prospects in the game is going to have to break down the door for a starting spot.

3) Which Bellinger are the Cubs getting this time?

The primary reason Bellinger’s value didn’t end up as high as many thought it would is that it’s still not entirely clear what kind of player he is moving forward. Last season was his best outside of his 2019 NL MVP season and his 2017 NL Rookie of the Year season in Los Angeles, and Lord knows it was better than his rough 2021 and ‘22 campaigns, but he still looks like a different guy than he was in his heyday. His improvement last year at the plate actually came from being less selective than he used to be -- he had fewer than half as many walks (40) as he did in his MVP season (95) -- and hitting the ball with less authority (or at least lower exit velocity) than he did back then. Considering his batted-ball data, you could even argue he experienced some good fortune in 2023, and that his numbers could regress.

Bellinger wanted to get paid like he was back to his old self, but his underlying numbers argued against that. Of course, he is still, somehow, only 28 years old, and we’ve certainly seen plenty of players find all sorts of new value well after the age of 28. It will be fascinating to see which Bellinger he looks more like in 2024: The 2023 version? The 2019 version? The (gulp) 2021 version? The Cubs are essentially making the same bet on him that they did last year. No one, even a year later, is quite sure how it’s going to play out.

4) Are the Cubs NL Central favorites now?

Again, there’s no reason to hire Counsell if you don’t plan on winning right now, so bringing back Bellinger is another clear indicator that the Cubs -- who had a difficult end to last year that cost them a playoff spot -- are planning on winning this division. Should we expect them to? On one hand, FanGraphs (and other projection systems) have them finishing second behind the Cardinals, even accounting for Bellinger returning. On the other hand … didn’t the Cardinals just lose 91 games and finish last in the division?

The Cubs’ rotation was boosted by the addition of Shota Imanaga, and Héctor Neris and Michael Busch are key adds too, but they did lose Marcus Stroman and Jeimer Candelario off last year’s team. This division is, fair to say, not all that scary, especially with the defending champion Brewers losing Counsell and trading ace Corbin Burnes. The Cubs look as well-positioned as anyone right now. That said: They had Bellinger last year and didn’t win the division. Why would they be more likely to do so now?

5) Is he just going to opt out after this season?

Though the Cubs are getting Bellinger for much less total money than most assumed he’d receive, he does have those opt-outs after the first two seasons. He’ll make $30 million this year; if he doesn’t opt out, he’ll make $30 million again next year. And if he’s still around in 2026, he’ll earn another $20 million.

The only way this deal doesn’t work out for the Cubs is if he sticks around for that $20 million in 2026, because that will mean he didn’t play well enough in his first two seasons to opt out either time and didn’t think he could get a better deal than $20 million two seasons from now.

If Bellinger is as good in 2024 as he was last year, it’s possible he opts out. After all, signing the one-year deal he signed last year with the Cubs was a signal he wanted to bet on himself and therefore could be very much up for doing so again (when he will still be only 29 -- on the young side for a free agent). But if he has a worse year, he may just stick around and enjoy that $30 million in 2025. That’s the joy of a deal like this: The better he does, the better it works out for everyone. And if it turns out he goes elsewhere after this season … well, we hear good things about that Crow-Armstrong fellow.