What a difference a year makes. Last year at this time, Cody Bellinger was at best a reclamation project. A former MVP who had fallen so far that the Los Angeles Dodgers non-tendered him and sent him out into free agency rather than spend another year trying to fix him. As recently as 2020, that would have been unthinkable. Then it become a reality.
This offseason, Bellinger, who is still only 28, is one of the best free agents available, and not only because it's a thin class. He authored a .307/.356/.525 line with 26 home runs in 130 games with the Chicago Cubs in 2023, a 4.4 WAR performance that figures to earn him MVP votes. Bellinger will be one of the most sought-after free agents this winter.
, and No. 1 among full-time position players. Here's his write-up:
There are three parts to a magic trick. First, showing something to the audience. Then, making that something disappear. Finally, making that something reappear. A lot of magicians use rabbits, coins, or planted volunteers. The baseball-minded among them, such as Bellinger, use their offensive output. He began his career in brilliant fashion, culminating in winning the 2019 National League Most Valuable Player Award. That production then vanished, to the extent that he was non-tendered last winter by the Dodgers. Bellinger has pulled off the final leg of the trick this season, reestablishing himself as a well-above-average hitter, albeit in inexplicable fashion. His ball-tracking data does not align with what you would expect from someone who once threatened 50 home runs: his average exit velocity puts him in company with Jean Segura, Yan Gomes, and Miguel Rojas. The secret to Bellinger's reemergence seems to be that he traded quality of contact for quantity of contact. It worked this season. Teams must now decide how confident they are in Bellinger's new trick, or if the sustainability of his resurgence is a matter of magical thinking.
A 28-year-old who hit like Bellinger did this season, has the MVP track record Bellinger has, and plays Gold Glove-caliber defense in center field like Bellinger does is easily a $100 million player. Bellinger has a chance at $200 million, though some clubs may be hesitant to go all out to sign him given his poor 2021-22 seasons and unimpressive exit velocities.
You can make a case for each of the 30 teams signing Bellinger. He's so young that he fits any contention window. Realistically, clubs that fancy themselves contenders in 2024 will pursue him most aggressively. Here are the 10 best landing spots for Bellinger as he heads back out into free agency, albeit under much different circumstances than last year.
10. San Diego Padres
Juan Soto and his projected $30-plus-million arbitration salary for multiple young players, then sign Bellinger to a contract with a lower average annual value and spend the savings on pitching. This is far-fetched, I know, but Preller has demonstrated a knack for making far-fetched moves., including player payroll, . That requires cutting about $50 million this offseason. That makes a Bellinger pursuit unlikely, though I refuse to close the door on GM A.J. Preller landing a big name player. There's a scenario in which the Padres trade
9. Los Angeles Dodgers
By all accounts the Dodgers and Bellinger ended their relationship on good terms last offseason. The non-tender was a business decision, not personal, and there's no reason to think Bellinger would be unwilling to return to Los Angeles or that the Dodgers are not open to bringing him back. That said, Bellinger would at best be Plan B for the Dodgers. They are expected to pursue Shohei Ohtani very aggressively, and landing Ohtani would close the door on a Bellinger reunion. Los Angeles also figures to prioritize pitching in addition to Ohtani, not another bat. This is a never say never situation more than a distinct possibility.
I'm not sure I would call this likely, but I can't rule out a Dave Dombrowski team going after a top free agent. Moving Bryce Harper to first base full-time opens up an outfield spot, a spot Bellinger could fill more than capably. Kyle Schwarber at DH, Brandon Marsh in left, Bellinger in center, Harper at first base. See? Nice and easy. It's probably too early to move the 31-year-old Harper to first base full-time -- he only played there this season because he was not yet cleared to make outfield throws following Tommy John surgery -- though I'm certain Harper is up for it. Unlikely? Yes. Impossible? Nope.
Good luck figuring out how the Red Sox and new chief baseball officer Craig Breslow will approach the offseason. It stands to reason that, after parting ways with Chaim Bloom, Red Sox ownership wants to contend in 2024, which means upgrading a roster that went 78-84 in 2023 and finished in last place for the third time in four years. Jarren Duran had a breakout season this year, so center field would not seem to be high on the list of offseason priorities, though Masataka Yoshida figures to spend most of his time at DH moving forward, so Boston could easily shift Duran to left to accommodate Bellinger. We know the Red Sox can afford Bellinger. The question is whether ownership is willing to spend it.
Bellinger would fit really well in Seattle. Yes, they already have a great center fielder in Julio Rodríguez, but there's plenty of room in the outfield for Bellinger and Rodríguez. Having two top flight glovemen in T-Mobile Park's large outfield is a necessity more than a luxury. The Mariners really need another bat too, particularly a left-handed hitter who can knock the ball out of the ballpark. With all due respect, you can only go so far when J.P. Crawford is your most dangerous lefty bat. GM Jerry Dipoto had an underwhelming offseason a year ago and Seattle missed the postseason by one game. It's OK to go out and spend money on a big name player rather than make three or four smaller moves that may make you look smart.
The offense failed the Astros down the stretch this season, particularly at home, and there is an opening in the outfield alongside Kyle Tucker and Chas McCormick (assuming Yordan Alvarez spends most of his time at DH). Bellinger would add length to the lineup and improve the center field defense -- McCormick is better suited for Minute Maid Park's small left field -- and help Houston extend its championship window. One thing to keep in mind: Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman are scheduled to become free agents next offseason. Would the Astros spend big on Bellinger when those two need new contracts? Why not do both: sign Bellinger and extend Altuve and Bregman? When it comes to an MLB team spending money, the question is usually "will they?" not "can they?"
For whatever reason, the whole has been less than the sum of the parts the last few years in Toronto. Don't get me wrong, the Blue Jays have been good -- they've won at least 89 games in each of the last three seasons -- just not as good as you'd expect given the talent on the roster. They have an opening in center field with Kevin Kiermaier becoming a free agent and George Springer shifting to right field now that he's in his mid-30s, and they badly need a lefty hitter to balance the lineup. Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. are only two years away from free agency, and Springer only has so many prime years remaining. Adding Bellinger would help maximize Toronto's chances of winning a title in the short-term.
3. Chicago Cubs
On paper, Bellinger and the Cubs are an excellent match. He just had a resurgent season on the North Side, so he's comfortable there and can be a productive player, plus the Cubs are a team on the rise with top prospects like Pete Crow-Armstrong and Jordan Wicks debuting in 2023. Crow-Armstrong is a gifted defensive center fielder himself, but there's no rule against having two top notch defenders in the outfielder. Put Crow-Armstrong alongside Bellinger in the outfield and enjoy watching all those fly balls turn into outs. The Cubbies have the money to retain Bellinger. This relationship seems like one worth continuing.
Bellinger's father, Clay, played three of his four MLB seasons with the Yankees, and won World Series rings in 1999 and 2000. When Bellinger visited Yankee Stadium with the Cubs this past July, he called it a "really special place to play," and said the Yankees "obviously mean a lot to our family," according to NJ.com. Good feelings only count for so much though. The Yankees are an obvious landing spot for Bellinger because they need a center fielder and a middle of the order lefty bat, two things he provides. After a disappointing season that saw them go 82-80 and finish in fourth place, it feels like the Yankees will do something big this offseason to change the feeling around the franchise. Signing Bellinger would qualify.
A year ago, the Giants whiffed on Aaron Judge and had their deal with Carlos Correa fall apart over a medical issue. For whatever reason, San Francisco has really struggled to sign star free agents. Bellinger fits their needs and ballpark -- a middle of the order thumper who can go get it in Oracle Park's spacious outfield -- plus he has a history with president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi dating back to their time with the Dodgers. The Giants went 79-83 this year and replaced manager Gabe Kapler with Bob Melvin after the season. Zaidi & Co. are trying to change the vibes and importing Bellinger would help accomplish that, in addition to improving the team on the field.