The Chicago Cubs approach spring training with one glaring hole in their roster — the space once occupied by Cody Bellinger.
Last season was a magical return to form for Bellinger, who slashed .307/.356/.525 with 26 home runs and 97 RBI in 499 AB. After injury-riddled campaigns in 2021 and 2022, the talented centerfielder signed a one-year, prove-it contract with the Cubs. Prove it he did. Now, the 2019 National League MVP and two-time Silver Slugger wants a contract befitting his impressive resumé.
Per MLB.com's Mark Feinsand, Bellinger desires north of $200 million on his next deal. Bellinger's agent, the incomparable Scott Boras, has a long history of focusing on dollar value over sentiment. Bellinger wants to return to Chicago. The Cubs want him back. But, it won't happen unless the two sides can meet in the middle, on more reasonable financial grounds.
The question is... can they?
Cubs won't pay top dollar to re-sign Cody Bellinger
Chicago's general guiding principles in the front office are a frequent source of frustration for the fanbase. The Cubs landed Craig Counsell on the most expensive managerial contract in league history, but the free-agent storm has otherwise been little more than a sprinkle. Shota Imanaga is great, but he comes at the cost of Marcus Stroman — not to mention the more established top-shelf aces Chicago could pursue, but will not.
The Cubs have not been able to land the impact bat their lineup presently lacks. The Cubs are littered with elite defenders and solid contact bats, but very little reliable power resides on the 40-man roster. Bellinger, at worst, is an RBI machine to anchor the middle of the lineup. Without him, the Cubs are left hoping Matt Chapman or Jorge Soler can reach terms. Neither is as well-rounded as peak Bellinger.
And yet, the Cubs simply don't want to take the risk inherent to Bellinger's current contract demands. As Patrick Mooney and Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic put it, Jed Hoyer and the front office prioritize "rational decisions that limit risks and preserve flexibility for the future."
That's all good and well, except the Cubs don't have an elite farm system or the financial liquidity to actually "be flexible" and land impact talent. Bellinger was essentially a lucky draw. The Cubs got him for one season at the absolute bottom of his value. Injured and beat up former MVPs who are still 28 and ready to bounce back — those guys don't come around every offseason. Chicago couldn't even land the discount version in Rhys Hoskins this time around.
So, in the absence of a bigger budget or a more deliberate tank job to build up the farm system, it's difficult to ascertain just how the Cubs plan to reach the mountaintop under Counsell. The NL Central is weak and winnable, but winning the division isn't enough. That's not the ultimate goal. The Cubs want to compete with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Atlanta Braves, and Philadelphia Phillies. The Cubs want their Arizona Diamondbacks dream run to the World Series. That won't happen unless something changes in the front office.
Bellinger at $200+ million over 10+ years is a major risk. We all know about the low hard-hit rate and the concerning analytical profile. We also know that, before last season's swift rise to power, Bellinger was a basement-level "starter" for two years in Los Angeles. He was hurt, but generally, once a player bats .195 for a full season, it's hard to shake that reputation entirely.
The Cubs aren't going to pay it, plain and simple. And, judging from his present lack of employment a week out from spring training, other teams probably feel the same way. That doesn't mean the Cubs' complete aversion to risk is acceptable. The front office is too dedicated to following the simple, safest, most middle-of-the-road path possible. That cowardice won't yield the desired results any time soon, especially if Bellinger walks for nothing.