The next chapter in Cody Bellinger’s professional baseball career began on Saturday with an error as he walked to the plate for his first at-bat as a member of the Chicago Cubs.
“Number 35,” the Sloan Park announcer bellowed, “Cody Bellinger!”
The problem: Bellinger is no longer number 35. That was his number with the Dodgers. Those days are over. He is number 24 now. The blue is a little different. There’s a little more red. Playing for the first time in his career for a team with no World Series prospects, the pressure to regain his All-Star form remains.
Bellinger’s time with the Dodgers ended abruptly before anyone could have expected in the not-so-distant past. He was not tendered in November with one year of club control left. His drop-off in the previous three seasons was steep, but the move was still shocking. The wound apparently hasn’t healed yet.
For four days, Bellinger did not appear at the clubhouse when it was open to the media after being notified of an interview request from a Los Angeles reporter. On the third day, he took the long way from a backfield to avoid the reporter and a Los Angeles television crew.
He declined to speak formally through a Cubs spokesperson on Day Four, Saturday, after going 0 for two with a strikeout in his spring training debut with the Cubs. Bellinger didn’t make the trip to Camelback Ranch on Sunday for the game against the Dodgers.
“The truth is I didn’t really have many conversations with the Dodgers until he wasn’t offered because I felt it was more of a fact that he would continue with them because they had rights over him.” Scott Boras, Bellinger’s agent, said last week. “I had no idea they wouldn’t offer it.”
Boras had good reason. The 27-year-old Bellinger hit .203 with a .648 on-base-plus-slugging percentage over the past three seasons, but he was named National League MVP the year before. He is a former rookie of the year and a two-time All-Star. He has a gold gauntlet and a silver slugger in his trophy case. He became a fan favorite in Los Angeles for six seasons, helping them reach the postseason each year and win a World Series title in 2020.
But the Dodgers decided it was too much to pay Bellinger $18 million, the salary projected through arbitration. They decided to release the midfielder in hopes of re-signing him for much cheaper than paying that price.
Boras said he met Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations, at the winter meetings the first week of December. Friedman explained that it was an “economic decision” not to offer Bellinger a contract and that they were open to re-signing him at a lower price.
Boras said 11 teams contacted him about Bellinger the day he was fired. Bellinger eventually agreed to a one-year, $17.5 million guaranteed contract with the Cubs at the winter meetings.
“We felt like there was a lot of upside,” said Cubs general manager Carter Hawkins. “When you see someone who’s played at that level before, it’s much easier to project that he could come back than someone who never has.”
The Dodgers enter the 2023 season with uncertainty in midfield after the loss of free agent Kevin Kiemaier. Jason Heyward, Chris Taylor and Trayce Thompson are candidates to split time there.
“The market was very different on what the Dodgers thought Cody’s worth was,” Boras said.
Bellinger’s production plummeted during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season after winning the MVP award. He then dislocated his shoulder during the National League Championship Series. The injury required surgery in November, which by all accounts undermined his strength in 2021.
He went on the injured list three times – he broke his fibula, treated hamstrings and broke a rib – limited him to 95 games. He hit .165 with a .542 OPS, but the Dodgers still believed in his talent.
The numbers improved in 2022, but not much. He hit .210 with a .654 OPS in 144 games. He was relegated to a platoon in September – not starting against left-handed pitchers. The relegation took another step with the season on the line in Game 4 of the National League Division Series when he was benched against San Diego Padres right-hander Joe Musgrove.
Cubs officials said Bellinger will play center field every day. Their focus is on two areas: his health, which they believe will make for more consistent mechanics.
“I think all those things are intertwined,” Hawkins said. “It’s always something at the bottom of the chain that influences something at the top of the chain. The body is a system. The swing is a system. And you can’t do one without affecting the other.”
Bellinger spent time in off-season training with former major league player Matt Holliday and his son Jackson—the top pick in last year’s draft—at Oklahoma State before signing with Chicago. Cubs hitting coach Dustin Kelly, who previously worked in the Dodgers organization, said he began working with Bellinger at the Cubs complex in Arizona two days after he signed.
“Gold Glove, rookie of the year, MVP, to have that at 27, we all thought, ‘Wow, this is going to be awesome,'” Kelly said. “And it’s been great. He was open to everything we put in front of him. And then he’s got some great ideas of his own that we’ve started integrating a little bit more into some of his training.
Hoyer said the club has emphasized that Bellinger is more of an athlete in the batter’s box and less focused on adjustments.
“The Dodgers are really good at what they do,” said Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer, “but sometimes it can really help to get a guy out of a certain environment.”
Cubs manager David Ross acknowledged that Bellinger has a point to prove before he runs into free agency again. Perhaps his days as an MVP candidate are over. But there’s plenty of room between his monster 2019 season and his production over the past three years. Millions of dollars are at stake.
The trial began on Saturday with a blunder over the sound system before the announcer got the song right for his next at-bat. It’s also the kind of rebound Bellinger needs.