For much of the 2023 season, it looked like the number of impact bats in the upcoming free agent market would be — well… minimal. Shohei Ohtani he looms large in both the starter and position player markets, and there’s no real consolation prize for teams who lose him. Matt Chapman was the top position player outside of Ohtani in previous installments of MLBTR’s Free Agent Power Rankings — a new version of which will be released in the coming weeks — but after a wild start to the season he’s now been a roughly average hitter over the last three-plus months. He’ll still command a hefty contract, thanks to his above-average offense and plus defense, but he no longer looks like the second-best name among position players this winter.
This distinction probably falls Cody Bellinger, whose one-year deal has proven to be a jackpot for both him and the Cubs. The $17.5 million Chicago guaranteed Bellinger now looks like an unrestricted deal by today’s market standards, and Bellinger is in prime position to exceed that this winter, provided he can stay healthy.
That’s far from a given for a player who had shoulder surgery in November 2020 and has been on the injured list four times since then — including a month out with a knee injury earlier this year. But Bellinger played in all but 10 of the Dodgers’ 384 games from 2018-20 and appeared in just 144 games last season. Outside of that offseason shoulder procedure, most of his injuries have been relatively minor.
What hasn’t been minor is the way Bellinger has rebounded at the plate this season. Bellinger debuted as a 21-year-old in 2017 and almost immediately established himself as an MVP-caliber talent. From 2017-19, he slashed .278/.368/.559, initially playing plus defense at first base before moving to the outfield in 2019 without missing a beat. Bellinger won NL Rookie of the Year in ’17 and was crowned league MVP two years later — while also winning a Gold Glove in the outfield and a Silver Slugger.
As almost any fan knows by now, the sky seemed like the limit, but it clearly wasn’t. Bellinger was an above-average but far from elite hitter during the truncated 2020 season, hitting .239/.333/.455 in 243 plate appearances. That good-not-great production continued into the postseason (.212/.316/.455, four home runs), but Bellinger’s biggest playoff story was the aforementioned shoulder. The then-reigning NL MVP hit a crucial home run in Game 7 of the NLCS against the Braves, but unfortunately dislocated his shoulder while celebrating that blast with a teammate Enrique Hernandez. Bellinger went 3-for-22 in the World Series — one of those three hits was another homer — and required surgery a month later.
The next two seasons were a mess. Not only were Bellinger’s days as an MVP candidate a distant memory — it was a fair question whether he was even a viable major leaguer for much of the 2021-22 season. In that span, Bellinger collected exactly 900 plate appearances and posted a hideous .193/.256/.355 slash line. He still played terrific defense, particularly in 2022, and hit 19 home runs with 14 stolen bases during the 2022 season. The Dodgers still haven’t offered Bellinger, and the Cubs outbid the ballpark on his $17.5 million guarantee – an expensive roll on a player who was 31% worse than league average over the previous two seasons (as measured by wRC+).
Just as Bellinger’s days as a top hitter quickly faded from memory in 2021-22, the struggles he endured during those two years now seem like they’re right in the rearview mirror. Bellinger had a brief slump when he was first activated from the injured list in mid-June, but has been on fire most of the summer since returning. In 371 trips to the plate entering Wednesday’s game, the two-time All-Star is hitting .325/.377/.551. He has hit 18 home runs to go along with 19 doubles, one triple and 17 steals (in 20 attempts). He averaged or better in center this season and even looked sharp in a brief return to first base (176 innings).
Perhaps most encouraging is the fact that Bellinger’s hit tool appears to be back at top levels. Strikeouts were an issue in his rookie season (26.6%), but Bellinger dropped that number to 16.4% during his MVP year in 2019. After his surgery, Bellinger’s strikeout rate dropped to 27.1% in 2021-22. He also saw a huge uptick in his chase rate on off-base pitches (26.8% in 2019, 34.8% in 2021-22), while his overall contact rate dropped from 78.1% to 74.6%.
This year, Bellinger has struck out in just 15.4% of his plate appearances – a career low by a full percentage point. He is enjoying career-best contact rates on both pitches in the strike zone (86.3%) and pitches he drives away from the plate (73.8%), leading to an overall career contact rate of 81.4%.
While the improved contact skills and increased selectivity are undoubtedly positive signs, there are some red flags that make Bellinger’s rebounding look a little weaker. In his prime, Bellinger was a hard contact machine, striking the ball at high rates and ranking among the league leaders in fastballs clocked at 95 mph or faster. In 2023, however, Bellinger’s average exit velocity of 87.2 mph is nearly four miles per hour slower than his average of 91.1 mph from 2019. This year’s 31.2% slugging percentage is nowhere near his 45.6% high, and his 6.4% barrel rate (as defined by Statcast) is about half of his best 12.6%.
That’s not to say Bellinger is a bad player or likely to regress to his dismal 2021-22 performance levels. His huge gains in contact and subsequent drop in shots lends a lot of legitimacy to his rebounding. The bigger question is to what extent he can maintain that level of production with a contact quality profile that is actually below league averages (89.1 mph exit velocity, 8.1% barrel rate, 39 hard hit rate, 3%).
Statcast’s “expected” metrics are far from an exact science, but Bellinger still has the second-largest gap of all hitters in terms of actual batting average (.325) and expected batting average (.271). The gap between his .551 slugging percentage and expected .447 slugging percentage is the fifth largest in baseball. Some fans may scoff at the mention of “expected” metrics, but they’ll certainly consider teams’ evaluation of Bellinger this winter (though most clubs have their own proprietary versions of such metrics that may differ from Statcast in various grades). That said, even those expected ratios mark Bellinger as a distinctly above-average hitter — roughly according to teammates Dansby Swanson and Ian Happ have produced this season. And, considering Bellinger’s previous displays of positive power, there is far more upside to his bat than either of those comparisons.
As with any free agent, there are more factors to consider than Bellinger’s bat alone. He’s played first base and center field at above-average levels this season and is obviously an option at every outfield corner as well. Combine that versatility with the fact that he can hit lefties and righties at above-average rates — he’s hitting lefties better in ’23, but he’s been better against righties in his career — and Bellinger allows any coach some flexibility when drafting a lineup sheet. This year’s average sprint speed of 28.3 ft/s is down slightly from his peak of 28.9 ft/s. from 2017-19, but still well above the league average (77th percentile). Bellinger uses that speed quite effectively. he was successful on 82.2% of his career steal attempts and 85% in 2023.
Perhaps more than anything in Bellinger’s case, the lack of a market will work in his favor. As previously mentioned, beyond Ohtani, there aren’t many notables to pursue this winter. Chapman’s bat has gone cold since his blistering start. Teoscar Hernandez entered the year as one of the top free agents on the market, but batted just .250/.297/.423 — the worst performance of his career over an entire season. Jorge Soler and JD Martinez they have strong cooldowns but are DH only options. Jeimer Candelario is enjoying a rebounding campaign of his own, but has nothing close to Bellinger’s track record.
In terms of competition at his position, Bellinger will be up against injury-plagued standout defenders Kevin Kiermaier and Harrison Bader. Both players are clear options for teams looking for an everyday centre-forward, although this is due more to their world-class defense than their attacking prowess. Neither is as complete a player as Bellinger, and Bader has been in the IL three times this year, while Kiermaier hasn’t reached 500 plate appearances in a season since 2015 (his only year to ever reach that level ).
Perhaps most important of all will be age. Bellinger just turned 28 last month. He won’t turn 29 until next year’s All-Star break. Any team signing Bellinger would be paying for more than the average free agent has to offer. Even an eight-year contract would last until Bellinger’s age-35 season. Given his age and the extent of his recovery this year, it seems likely that he and agent Scott Boras will seek at least one opt-out opportunity in any long-term deal. He’ll certainly turn down a qualifying offer at the end of the season, and while that won’t do him any favors in free agency, QO typically hasn’t been too much of a burden on the very top free agents on the market.
No one is going to topple Ohtani as the most sought-after free agent in the upcoming class, but Bellinger looks more and more like he could be considered the next best position player on the market. His bet on himself has paid off big and as long as he doesn’t completely collapse in the final six-plus weeks of the season, I imagine he’ll be on the market looking for top recent signings George Springer (six years, $150MM), Brandon Nimmo (eight years, $162 million) and Chris Bryant (seven years, $182 million). Whether anyone actually approaches or surpasses $200M for a player who has struggled so significantly since 2021-22 and has a somewhat abysmal batting profile in his rebound season remains to be seen. But just the fact that he’s even worth considering speaks to the magnitude of his turnaround campaign at Wrigley.
#Resurgent #appearance #Cody #Bellinger