After getting some of the worst center field production in the league this past season, particularly on defense, Jed Hoyer said the Cubs are likely to give a bulk of their 2023 innings to someone from outside the organization. Unlike their need to add a big bat or two to the infield, it won’t be very expensive to make a significant upgrade in center. Seriously, even a below-average hitter will make them much better if he flashes good leather.
Because they’ve got several outfielders waiting in the wings, namely Pete Crow-Armstrong, the Cubs are also looking for someone who isn’t going to command a big contract. Yeah, I get it, that makes it sound like they’re just trying to be cheap. In reality, it’s more about betting on a rebound without having to worry about a long-term commitment.
Enter Kevin Kiermaier and Cody Bellinger, a pair of veterans who have been or will be cut loose by their old teams and who are on the Cubs’ radar this winter. This is something we’ve mentioned here more than once and the most common responses are either that Kiermaier is injury-prone or that the Cubs should try to sign former Met Brandon Nimmo. Let’s address both of those ideas before circling back to Bellinger.
Kiermaier will be 33 in April and he has played fewer than 130 games in all but one of nine seasons, plus he missed most of 2022 after having surgery to correct a nagging hip issue. He’s a very average hitter whose double-digit homer days are probably behind him, but he’s produced positive defensive runs saved and outs above average every year.
He doesn’t even need to be 100% healthy — there are several internal backup options if he’s not — to give the Cubs better production than what they got last year and he’ll do so at a very reasonable salary. It’s hard to see Kiermaier getting more than one year, though maybe there’s an option to push a little of the guarantee down the road via buyout.
I know I said we’d go to Nimmo first, but Bellinger gets the nob because he makes much more sense for the Cubs. The former Rookie of the Year and MVP has not come close to replicating that early production in any of the last three years with the Dodgers and there’s no way they’re paying him the $18 million or so he’s projected to earn in arbitration.
This is one of the rare situations in which it’s actually advantageous for a team to work with a Scott Boras client, as the agent loves to do small “pillow” deals to rebuild value. He’s more than happy to guide clients to the right situation for a very reasonable salary with the hope he can parlay a big season into a big payday.
“It’s about health and strength,” Boras said of Bellinger at the GM Meetings in Las Vegas. “We know he’s a five-tool player, an MVP type. …It’s really about getting his strength back so he can repeat his skill level.”
Boras met with members of the Cubs front office earlier in the week to discuss Xander Bogaerts and Carlos Correa, so it’s entirely likely the possibility of Bellinger’s eventual availability came up. If Boras really believes the Cubs are serious about trying to compete, maybe by signing one of those shortstops, he might see them as an ideal fit to help Bellinger rebuild his reputation.
Bellinger seems like the kind of guy who’d really love summer in Chicago, which I guess is like saying he’s pretty much any human being who hasn’t been infected by hellhole brainworms. I was going to say something about weed being legal there too, but that felt uncouth. Regardless, this is a really good fit even if I don’t personally buy the idea of Bellinger being able to bounce back.
Okay, now we’ll get to Nimmo and why I think there’s no way in hell the Cubs are going to entertain the idea of pursuing him. He’ll be 30 in March and he’s got a 134 career wRC+ over parts of seven seasons, but his defense is just okay. While I said earlier that even average defense would be way better than what the Cubs got in ’22, I don’t think it’s worth paying nine figures to get Nimmo’s bat. More importantly, I can’t imagine the Cubs being willing to pay for it.
Would Nimmo be a huge improvement over what the Cubs just got? Oh, hell yeah. Would he be a huge improvement over a year of Kiermaier/Bellinger followed by several years of PCA? Maybe, but it’s not something Hoyer will pay $100 million to find out.
While I still prefer Kiermaier because Brian Roberts and Whit Merrifield never came to fruition, I think Bellinger is as good a fit as the Cubs can find.