The Chicago Cubs Won Their Staring Contest for Cody Bellinger

Patience paid off for the Chicago Cubs in their pursuit of Cody Bellinger, as they were able to re-sign the former MVP on a short-term deal.

CHICAGO, IL - AUGUST 19: Cody Bellinger #24 of the Chicago Cubs watches the flight of a home run in a game against the Kansas City Royals at Wrigley Field on August 19, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Matt Dirksen/Getty Images)

When free agency began all the way back in November, most people would have viewed it as a likely outcome for Cody Bellinger to return to the Chicago Cubs through free agency.

Last year, the match between Bellinger and Chicago was one made in heaven, as the two sides enjoyed a renaissance season together. The Cubs posted their first winning season in three years and Bellinger went from non-tendered to earning MVP votes again.

After he showed out on his one-year prove-it deal, Bellinger hit free agency and was looking to cash in on a long-term deal. Many were forecasting such a deal being seven-plus years and worth at least $150 million. Our own Tim Kelly predicted that Bellinger would sign an eight-year, $200 million contract at the start of free agency.

Yet here we are months later and Bellinger has returned to the Cubs on a deal that does not even eclipse nine figures. After a long staring contest between Cubs President Jed Hoyer and Bellinger’s agent Scott Boras, the two sides have come to terms on a new deal, that is a clear win for the team long-term.

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A Huge Win for the Chicago Cubs

On the surface, Bellinger should have been able to set and meet his price in free agency based on the year he just had. Still just 28 years old, Bellinger hit .307/.356/.525, with 26 home runs, 20 stolen bases and a 134 wRC+. An argument can certainly be made that he was the best player on the Cubs.

Yet when he fit free agency there was an elephant in the room. And that is the fact that two lackluster seasons preceded his Silver Slugger-winning 2023 campaign.

Combine that with some concerning batted ball data, where Bellinger ranked in the bottom 27% of the league in both Barrel% and average exit velocity, while being in the bottom 10% of the league in HardHit% and it makes sense why some teams were wary of paying top dollar on a long deal.

For all we know, there might have been a team out there offering a seven-year deal to Bellinger, but either the money was not right or the team was poor fit and no deal ever came to fruition. Instead, Bellinger has returned to Chicago on a three-year, $80 million deal.

Just like a year ago, Bellinger has bet on himself with another prove-it deal to play for the Cubs.

Last year, Bellinger essentially had a one-year, $17.5 million deal with the Cubs. The deal was structured as a two-year, $24 million pact, but the second year was a mutual option. Bellinger made $12 million in 2024, then received a $5.5 million buyout on the option when he hit free agency.

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This time around, Bellinger will make $30 million in 2024, and then can once again opt-out if he has another great season. At that stage, Bellinger will be 29 years old and still capable of signing that seven or eight-year deal, once he proves to teams that the bounce back was legit.

Now if Bellinger takes a step back in 2024, he can return to the Cubs in 2025 and get paid $30 million once again. Once again, Bellinger could opt-out of the contract if he has a good year, or he can play the entire deal out and make $20 million in 2026.

If Bellinger has another great season for the Cubs, this contract will help him maximize his earning potential, because no team was going to give him $30 million per season on a long-term deal anyway. Maybe next offseason he gets his $200+ million deal and he can tack this $30 million on top of it, similar to what happened with Carlos Correa a year ago.

But there is always risk in not signing the long-term deal when you first get the chance to do so.

Make no mistake about it, this is not what Boras envisioned for Bellinger when he first hit free agency. The hope would have been to settle for less per year, say the $25 million AAV we predicted, but over a eight-year deal. Such a contract would have been more than double what he ended up signing in terms of total dollars.

Hopefully it all works out for Bellinger in the long run, but this is a master class from Hoyer and the Cubs. They were able to land their guy in free agency, without taking on the risk of a long-term deal.

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Sure, there is some risk if Bellinger does not perform this year and is on the books for $30 million in 2025, but that is a much better gamble to take than being stuck to him on a contract that would have spanned into his mid-to-late 30s.

The Cubs are paying a premium for Bellinger, but they are getting his age-28, 29 and 30 seasons. If he stays for the whole deal, that is the rest of his peak prime years. More likely, Bellinger has a good year and opts out, at which point Chicago is no worse for wear.

When it came to the free agent pursuit of Bellinger, patience clearly worked in the Cubs favor on this deal. Now the question is which shoe drops next for Scott Boras’ other top free agent clients?

There is every chance we will see a similar structure in place for Blake Snell, Jordan Montgomery and Matt Chapman when it is all said and done. For now though, they all remain free agents, whereas Bellinger at least gets to begin his spring training and get ready for the 2024 season.