Even the most optimistic among us didn’t expect Cody Bellinger to do this well when he joined the Cubs on a one-year, $17.5 million contract after the Dodgers designated him for assignment. Many believed he was cooked after two disastrous seasons in LA and others thought that if the Dodgers’ elite staff couldn’t turn the former MVP around, no one could. It’s starting to look like Bellinger isn’t a lost cause after all.
There’s no such thing as a bad one-year deal and the consensus was that the worst-case scenario would see Bellinger providing excellent defense in center even if his offense remained stagnant. What we saw in April, however, indicates that Jim Bowden’s skepticism was indeed misplaced.
The shoulder and leg injuries that plagued Bellinger since 2020 are in the past and the residual mechanical flaws no longer seem to be hampering him. Looking back through comparison videos of his swing shows that he made several adjustments — possibly without even realizing it — to compensate for a loss of strength, tweaking his swing to recapture what he’d lost.
Being further removed from those issues is obviously important, but putting in work with a personal trainer for the first time and trying Lagree advanced Pilates helped as well. And while the whole change-of-scenery notion is a little threadbare from overuse, there’s something to be said for how a big shift in one’s environment can trigger changes in mentality as well.
This is anecdotal and I can’t find the source material other than to cite something I heard from renowned sports performance coach Jason Goldsmith, but it’s believed that mentality can affect up to 25% of athletic performance. If Bellinger felt stuck in a rut with the Dodgers, he may not have been able to make the necessary changes to improve.
Though he didn’t say as much explicitly, he indicated during the Cubs’ series in Miami that he may have made some adjustments to his mentality.
“Routine, approach,” Bellinger responded when asked about his strong start. “Good or bad, it’s realizing that the next day is the most important. And really, just staying within myself and just being in the moment.”
Those three games against the Marlins weren’t good for the Cubs as a team, but Bellinger showed up in South Florida soon after the birth of his second daughter and boosted his numbers in a big way. He tripled in the first game and homered in each of the next two, bringing the latter total to seven on the season. His 158 wRC+ is only three points below what he posted in that 2019 MVP campaign and his 1.4 fWAR puts him ninth in MLB.
In fact, Bellinger is on pace to lead the Cubs with what would be a career-best 8.0 fWAR. He’s striking out less than ever and taking walks at a higher rate than in either of the last two years while also displaying the power that had been absent since the shortened season. Even falling off a bit will see Bellinger playing like a very valuable member of the lineup and someone who will be able to command a very significant deal in free agency.
And before you go thinking there’s a chance Bellinger could potentially stick around as part of his mutual option for next season, you may want to consider all the factors. Not only are such options almost never exercised, but a 28-year-old with his resume coming off of what could be a very big season isn’t going to settle for $12 million in what figures to be a thin market. An extension is unlikely for a number of reasons, two of which are named Pete Crow-Armstrong and Scott Boras.
There is, however, a way for Bellinger to earn a little more money from the Cubs than what he’s already guaranteed. He’s got a $1 million kicker for winning Comeback Player of the Year, for which he looks like a very strong candidate at this point. Jed Hoyer probably won’t be trying to flip Bellinger unless the Cubs faceplant over the next three months, but that possibility exists as a way for the organization to make out really well on their gamble. Regardless of what uniform he ends this season wearing, he almost certainly won’t be in Cubs gear in 2024.
With the obvious caveat that there’s still a lot of baseball left to play, it’s been really fun to watch Bellinger play like the guy who put himself on a Hall of Fame track in his first few seasons. It’ll be even more fun when PCA does the same thing starting next year.