Cubs Should Have Payroll Space To Hang Onto Cody Bellinger
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Scott Boras must love it when he talks to Cody Bellinger. The “pillow” contract he put together for Bellinger with the Cubs has worked out perfectly, putting the 28-year-old slugger in position to be one of the top free agents on the market next winter.

That is, unless the Cubs put together a contract extension to hang onto him.

This close to free agency, with his best totals in four years, it’s doubtful that Tom Ricketts and Jed Hoyer can sign Bellinger before he reaches the open market. But they do get first crack at signing him, and the good news is they are finally completing their payments to Jason Heyward.

Between the $17.5 million commitment to Bellinger in 2023 and the last $21.28 million due Heyward in the eight-year deal he signed before ’16, the Cubs are freeing up almost $40 million per season they can earmark for Bellinger and others.

Ricketts and Hoyer have been freely signing multi-year deals since they allowed their core players from the 2016 championship season to walk. They committed $497 million over a total of 25 seasons in long-term deals for Marcus Stroman, Seiya Suzuki, Dansby Swanson, Jameson Taillon, Ian Happ and Nico Hoerner, giving the team $144.3 million on the books for seven players next season.

But they are going to exercise a $16 million option to keep Kyle Hendricks, so their effective total of 2024 commitments is $158.8 for eight players. Then they have to budget for Cy Young candidate Justin Steele and nine other arbitration-eligible players while re-signing or replacing Bellinger and third baseman Jeimer Candelario.

It’s impossible to accurately predict the budget Ricketts will give Hoyer. The Cubs project to finish 2023 only about $5.2 million below the $233 million tax threshold (including $16 million in player benefits and the last payment to Heyward).

If they also approach the threshold in ’24, it will mean about $220 million in salaries. That estimate suggests Hoyer will have about $60 million to fill out the roster.

While Bellinger isn’t the otherworldly force he was in his early years with the Dodgers, he could be the top non-Shohei Ohtani option on the free-agent market. He fits with any team looking to beef up the lineup, as he’s put his 2020 shoulder surgery behind him to profile as a solid defender at all three outfield spots in addition to first base.

Bellinger’s best value is as a center fielder. He has 79 of his 124 starts there for the Cubs and at times has looked like the Gold Glove defender he was in 2019. But defensive metrics aren’t as kind to him (-2 Defensive Runs Saved in center) as they figure to be for top prospect Pete Crow-Armstrong, who should fit between Happ and Suzuki next season.

Bellinger has been worth +4 DRS in his limited work at first base this season. He could anchor down there or even at designated hitter next season for the Cubs, with the chance to move to the outfield when he was needed.

It’s the bat that matters the most. He heads toward the final weekend of the regular season with a slash line of .309/.359/.533 in his age-27 season. He joins Swanson and Hoerner to give the Cubs three regulars with 4-plus WAR, like they had back in 2016 (Bryant, Rizzo and Dexter Fowler). It makes sense for them to spend what it takes to hang onto him.

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