Why Bellinger could be Cubs' most important signing in 2023


Cody Bellinger sounded like he was attracted to what he heard about playing at Wrigley Field, and said he appreciated the chance to now play for two iconic franchises.

But at the end of the day his one-year decision to play for the Cubs is a $17.5 million business decision.

And at the end of next year how that decision gets measured might have more to say about the  Cubs’ 2023 season — if not the direction their latest rebuild goes from here — than even the bigger free agent signings of Dansby Swanson and Jameson Taillon ($245 million combined).

“It’s definitely important. I’m not going to say it’s not,” Bellinger, a 2019 MVP, said of the decision to seek a one-year deal as a means to re-establish value after he was released by the Dodgers following two underachieving seasons, despite receiving multiyear offers, according to his agent.

“But where I’m at right now and how I feel mentally and physically, I’m in a pretty good spot,” he said. “It’s definitely a big year, but I feel really good, and I’m excited for it.”

It’s hard to overstate how much of a wild-card-factor Bellinger represents for the Cubs in a 2023 season that’s supposed to be the inflection point toward competitiveness after they tanked to rebuild for the second time in a decade.

Back-to-back losing seasons left the Cubs with 2022 attendance lower than any season since 1997 (excluding pandemic-related restrictions), sagging TV viewership and a gutted roster with vastly more question marks than answers.

Swanson’s seven-year deal and Taillon’s four-year deal represent longer, known-quantity building blocks in team president Jed Hoyer’s vision for his Next Great Cubs Team.

Bellinger represents the potential for sudden impact, for the spectacular, for the kind of power from the left side and athletic ability in centerfield to lift the Cubs’ lineup toward playoff-caliber levels.

Or none of the above.

The range of possibilities are at least as wide as the range of his results during six years in the big leagues.

The first three years included 111 home runs, a .920 OPS, a Rookie of the Year award, Gold Glove, MVP and two All-Star selections.

The last three included a shoulder injury that might have hurt his hitting mechanics even after he recovered, offensive production that lagged behind Jason Heyward’s and enough doubt going forward that the mega-payroll Dodgers non-tendered him in November rather than pay him through one more winter of arbitration eligibility.

What comes next?

Who knows?

But it could be the closest thing to must-watch viewing since the team launched their subpar TV network in 2020.

That’s the thing.

And that’s the business deal both he and the Cubs struck, each betting on the bounce-back that likely would send Bellinger back into free agency seeking the mega contract that looked all but assured about the time he turned 24.

“I think my favorite thing that I’ve learned is that you can’t change the past, but you can learn from it,” said Bellinger, who at 27 is still firmly in a ballplayer’s traditional prime years.

Bellinger’s career took a sharp downward turn after suffering a dislocated shoulder celebrating a homer slamming forearms with a teammate during the 2020 playoffs. It required surgery, and even after he returned supposedly healthy in 2021, he hit just .193 with a .611 OPS the past two seasons.

He said as he returned his “body was just moving different” and that “there were things in the past that I thought weren’t working anymore.”

Some of that might have involved hitting mechanics, he suggested. But more than that, he said has custom tailored more recent workouts for his body type and the nature of its balance and movements.

“I’m doing more body-specific workouts,” he said. “Overall, I’m feeling really good and really strong and allowing my body to kind of be free and do what makes me good and to be able to tap into that.”

His agent, Scott Boras, said leading up to his signing that Bellinger was feeling as healthy as he had since the injury and suggested all he needed was a place to play that could commit the at-bats — and one-year, prove-it contract — to get the elite, bounce-back results.

If he stays healthy, the ban on infield shifts alone should favor a comeback for the pull hitter when they go into effect in 2023. “Definitely exciting,” he said.

And the change-of-scenery can’t hurt.

“Oftentimes, it’s just that one new voice, that one new idea that can really click something for you,” Cubs general manager Carter Hawkins said.

“A player like that, obviously, who’s had so much success in his early career, that talent is still there.”

How much will show in 2023? From the start? Eventually? Or somewhere else afterward?

Those are the questions framing the $17.5 million bet that both sides are making (with $5.5 million of that tied up in a mutual option that makes the Cubs’ 2023 actual cost $12 million).

The payoff both seek has the potential to be dramatic enough to reset an All-Star career back onto a lucrative long-term track.

For the Cubs, it could have an even more dramatic impact on the expectations and direction of the club after an even uglier, more bitter tank job than the first one under Theo Epstein.

Or he could wind up just another flip guy at the trade deadline.

That’s how big Bellinger’s bat played before the injury and decline -- and how big the decline that followed the injury.

That’s how big this bet, and how big-business this could be for both.

Now he just has to do it. To prove he’s still that All-Star player.

“It’s tough. I’m not gonna lie,” Bellinger said of going through the last two years mentally. “But I think at the end of it all I’m going to look back and be appreciative that it happened and going to be able to learn from it — I have learned from it. I think it’s going to be better for the longevity of my career.

“Looking forward where I’m at right now, I’m feeling really good and confident and strong.”

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