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Why a top free agent like Cody Bellinger might consider a shorter-term contract as spring approaches
10 days ago
Heading into the 2023/2024 offseason, outfielder/first baseman Cody Bellinger was arguably one of the best bats available in free agency. Shohei Ohtani dominated the top free agent mark, considering the two-way superstar has been phenomenal since joining the Angels. Still, Bellinger is one of the top names behind the Japanese product this winter.
Bellinger’s career has been full of ups and downs. The left-handed bat started his MLB journey in 2017, earning his first All-Star nod, taking home NL Rookie of the Year honours, posting a 143 OPS+, and swatting 39 home runs with 97 RBIs. He followed that up with an even more spectacular campaign two years later where he posted a .305 average, 167 OPS+ and 15 RBIs and locked down another Midsummer Classic appearance while also winning the NL MVP award, a Gold Glove Award, and a Silver Slugger Award as well.
What followed that MVP campaign was a rather sharp decline for Bellinger at the plate. Through 295 games and 1032 at-bats over the next three seasons, the Arizona product saw his strikeouts climb dramatically and posted a .203/.272/.376 slash line with 134 RBIs and hitting to the tune of a .648 OPS and 76 OPS+, well below what Dodger fans had seen from Bellinger in the past. He also dealt with multiple injuries in 2021, which limited him to just 95 games that season.
Looking at a potential short-term deal for Cody Bellinger
After being non-tendered by the Dodgers last winter, Bellinger inked a one-year deal with the Chicago Cubs and bounced back well, bringing his batting average over the .300 mark while finishing the year with a 133 OPS+ and 26 home runs, all three of which were team highs (he tied Christopher Morel for the home run mark). Defensively, he split his time between centre field and first base for the Cubs, putting forth a -3 and +5 DRS, respectively.
Now a free agent, the Scott Boras client was reportedly looking for a $200+ million deal early in the offseason but currently finds himself without a club with Spring Training starting to get underway for some organizations. With pitchers and catchers now reporting or slated to report this week, it appears to be a bit of a cat-and-mouse game for Bellinger’s camp and MLB teams, seeing which side is willing to cave first.
It’s been an interesting offseason given the Ohtani saga and the rather slow pace of free agency, with numerous top players (and even more Boras clients) still looking for new deals such as Blake Snell, Jordan Montgomery, J.D. Martinez, Jorge Soler, and former Blue Jays third baseman Matt Chapman. While a long-term deal for Bellinger seemed plausible earlier this winter, the number of teams needing a centre fielder/first base type is starting to dwindle, and the number of teams that are likely able to pay enough money for his services are looking slimmer as each day passes by. That’s not to say a team like the Cubs, Blue Jays, or the San Francisco Giants may panic and overpay for his services but each day that passes is another day of added risk of securing that type of guaranteed deal.
For what it’s worth, Bellinger could look to set his sights on a shorter-term contract to try and add some value for a future free agent window.
He is just one season removed from being completely below average at the plate for three seasons and teams may not be willing to offer up a long-term deal without some more at-bats to see whether the 2023 season was a fluke or not. Ball clubs know what he is capable of (again, a former MVP) but one season of solid at-bats in the NL Central might not be enough to sway teams to commit to a long-term deal for the former Dodger.
While this past campaign may have seemed like the “prove-it” year, should Bellinger sign another contract in the short term and continue to replicate the same success from last season, he would have more leverage to try and secure a guaranteed deal while still in the prime years of his career at just 29 years old next winter.
In this scenario, a team looking to do a one/two-year deal with an additional player option may suit both club and player the best, as Bellinger gets a chance to bet on himself for another solid campaign but adds another year of stability through the option should he become injured or struggle to replicate his 2023 success. It’s not the long-term deal he and Boras likely want right now but it sets himself up for more bargaining power moving forward, especially since he won’t be tied to draft pick compensation or the qualifying offer during future free agency years.
There are obvious cons with the short-term deal, in that if he struggles at the plate, he sits tough for a long-term deal in his next free agent window, which could arguably be next year. This would be the worst-case scenario for Bellinger, as it would prove more that the 2023 season was more of a one-off versus the norm he was looking to set. This would pivot more for Bellinger to secure some sort of option for additional years in the short-term scenario in the event he does struggle to produce in the batter’s box and has some form of additional contract security, even if it is not 5-8 years worth.
As well, this offseason is considered pretty weak outside of a few top names, so the outfielder may be in tough to secure more money next winter (assuming he is a free agent again in this scenario) when he has to contend with potential position player free agents such as Juan Soto, Alex Bregman, Pete Alonso, and Paul Goldschmidt. He would be one of the higher-rated outfielders outside of Soto, but those looking for a first baseman or a DH-type bat could look elsewhere, given the current free agent pool, unless Bellinger replicates the 2023 success.
The biggest difference maker in this scenario is Bellinger’s representation, as there is a chance that Boras is ok to wait out the market into Spring Training and is still able to lock down a long-term deal for his client.
That’s where the give-and-take aspect of this whole scenario plays out, in that either the player or the team is going to cave first, and one could easily argue that the Giants, Cubs, and Blue Jays could fold to increased years/demand to add Bellinger. The Cubs have the slight advantage of not having to contend with lost draft picks for singing the outfielder and the Jays may even only consider a long-term contract given their stance regarding the CBT and the penalties with signing over the allotted tiers but again, someone will have to cave eventually if either team or player wants their way.
Bellinger and the contract standoff
Looking ahead, there is an argument to be made for Bellinger to potentially bet on himself for a short-term deal to try and cash in in a future offseason window but also a point to be made for the seven-year veteran to continue holding out right now for a deal that guarantees long-term security. He has the right representation to argue for the latter argument, but at some point, if teams are starting to play Spring Training games and Bellinger continues to sit on the sidelines, there could be a breaking point on the player side.
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