The Chicago Cubs face a potential franchise-altering decision this winter: What to do about Cody Bellinger?
Bellinger signed with the Chicago Cubs on a one-year $12.50 million “make good” contract last winter. The contract includes a mutual option (at the same money) for 2024, an option he is almost certain to decline.
After all, Bellinger has beyond question “made good” in 2023. He’s hitting.327 with 17 home runs, 56 RBI and a .928 OPS that is his best since his 2019 MVP season with the Dodgers.
He is likely to get MVP votes (maybe finishing top five) and if the Cubs reach postseason play, their star will be a large part of the reason. For all those reasons, he has become a fan favorite on Chicago’s North Side.
What will the Chicago Cubs do after Cody Bellinger’s successful season?
That being the case, Option A for Cubs management is to try to sign Bellinger to a multi-year extension. But that won’t be easy. Bellinger’s 2023 success has driven his open market value to the stratosphere, and his agent, Scott Boras, knows it.
Boras is the game’s foremost advocate of taking players to free agency and testing their value on a true open market. For that reason if no other, Bellinger is virtually guaranteed to resist all urges to sign any extension with the Cubs before at least a serious dip into the free agent waters, which means team president Jed Hoyer and GM Carter Hawkins can expect to pay full market value for Bellinger’s services in 2024 and beyond … if they can re-sign him at all.
At the same time, re-signing Bellinger is likely to be seen as a vital part of the Cubs’ winter plans, if for no other reason than credibility with the team’s extensive fan base. No matter how much Bellinger costs, the Cubs (one of the game’s most profitable franchises) would have a hard time pleading poverty.
Failure to re-sign Bellinger would, rightly or wrongly, be widely interpreted among the fan base as a sign that the team is not serious about winning in 2024.
But re-signing Bellinger also creates issues, and those issues go beyond fan dissatisfaction.
Bellinger’s primary position is center field. That also happens to be the position of the team’s No. 1 prospect, Pete Crow-Armstrong. He is carrying an .899 OPS at Triple-A Iowa. Word among the experts, including those who rank prospects, is that Crow-Armstrong, 21 and with a reputation as a defensive sensation, will be MLB-ready next season.
It goes without saying that a 21-year-old rookie with phenom potential would require far less of a financial commitment than Bellinger.
If the Cubs sign Bellinger to the kind of long-term extension he will demand, then they are tacitly giving up on the future of their top prospect.
The Cubs could re-sign Bellinger with the understanding that he will spend most of his playing time at first base. He’s made nearly 300 career starts at that position, including 25 this season. That would allow the 2024 team to have both Bellinger and Crow-Armstrong in the same lineup.
But that move is also not consequence-free. First, it could amount to showing the door to the team’s trade deadline pickup, Jeimer Candelario, who is also a free agent at season’s end. Given his .485 average since coming back to Chicago, where he began his career in 2016, that may also be unpopular.
Like Bellinger, Candelario is a two-position player who can also play third base, although the Cubs have used him mostly at first.
And if the Cubs try to finesse the entire Bellinger protocol — re-signing and moving him to first, moving Candelario to third and installing Crow-Armstrong in center — where does that leave 2023 find Mike Tauchman?
Signed as a free agent out of Korea and promoted to the big team in mid-May, Tauchman is batting .284 with a 120 OPS+. Since Tauchman became a regular on May 21, the Cubs have played .565 ball.
Bellinger has generated 2.1 Win Probability Added for the Cubs thus far this season. That’s a solid number, and given his age (27), there’s no reason to expect that production to do anything but increase for the foreseeable future.
But here’s the conundrum. Combine Tauchman’s season (1.7 WPA) with Candelario’s first two weeks as a Cub (0.5 WPA) and you get 2.2 Win Probability Added, marginally higher than Bellinger. Throw in the fair expectations of what Crow-Armstrong might contribute to the 2024 cause and the question is joined.
Do you want Bellinger at the premium price it would take to re-sign him, or would you rather have your system’s top rookie plus your two 2023 finds?
Or, and this is the truly intriguing question for Hoyer and Hawkins, can you find some way to have the best of all worlds (Bellinger plus Crow-Armstrong plus Candelario plus Tauchman) in 2024?
If you’re wondering why team execs are highly paid, it’s to sort their way through problems like that.