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Chicago Sun Times
Chicago Sun-Times
18 Nov 2023

NextImg:Cody Bellinger honed his consistency with the Cubs, making him a top free agent

The crack of Cody Bellinger’s bat broke up the pregame stillness on a late-September afternoon at Wrigley Field. Bellinger was running through two staple drills, first kicking through with his back leg, then switching to a ‘‘flamingo’’ stance with his front knee raised high.

They’re drills he often works on in the batting cages to help him solidify his base, but he also likes to see the flight path of the ball. So once or twice a week at Wrigley, he would take the field early with Cubs hitting coach Dustin Kelly.

‘‘There’s not anybody else around that can kind of speed him up,’’ Kelly said in a conversation with the Sun-Times. ‘‘So we just like to move at our own pace.’’

This past season with the Cubs, Bellinger tapped into the best version of his swing, setting him up to be the second-best free-agent hitter this winter to Shohei Ohtani. Consistency was a mark of his Silver Slugger-winning season, as he remained productive even in his slumps — a relative term, considering Bellinger hit a career-high .307.

He has gone through the initial steps to enter free agency, declining his part of a mutual 2024 contract option this month and rejecting a qualifying offer from the Cubs before the deadline this week.

The next question is where he’ll begin the next chapter of his career.

‘‘Cody did have a great experience in Chicago,’’ Bellinger’s agent, Scott Boras, said at the general managers meetings last week. ‘‘ . . . But where Cody can play and play well — he feels he can play well anywhere.’’

Don’t expect any favoritism, Cubs.

‘‘The contributions he made will have to be replaced,’’ president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said in his end-of-season news conference. ‘‘Obviously, we’d love to bring him back. But in a world where that’s somewhat uncertain, we do have to figure out a way to replace that offensively.’’

The Cubs, who were finalists for Ohtani’s services when he first came to the majors, are expected to talk with the two-way phenom’s representatives this winter, and there are some intriguing hitters who might be available via trade. But the Cubs also are expected to be in contact with Boras, who represents several other top free agents, too. 

Boras insisted Ohtani’s free-agency timeline wouldn’t affect Bellinger’s because of their different positions. Ohtani, a generational talent, is a designated hitter who plans to return to the mound in 2025 after having surgery on his right elbow in September. Bellinger is a high-level center fielder and first baseman.

‘‘Those platforms of demand are actually very different,’’ Boras said. ‘‘So teams that are approaching Cody are teams who want him to play every day in the field.’’

It’s hard to predict exactly when Bellinger will sign his next contract before seeing how the market starts to move.

The Cubs also face some unpredictability internally. New manager Craig Counsell has yet to set his coaching staff, which he said will be a slow process. A wholesale upheaval is unlikely, especially after the Brewers promoted Counsell’s former bench coach, Pat Murphy, to manager and retained the rest of the staff.

‘‘I think we had a really good coaching staff; I’m sure a lot of those guys will be back,’’ Hoyer said last week. ‘‘But there may be some reshuffling of roles and things like that. Those are [Counsell’s] decisions.’’

Bellinger’s resurgence, first and foremost, was a product of his own commitment and talent. But it also reflected well on Kelly and assistant hitting coach Johnny Washington.

The best hitters find ways to get on base and drive in runs even outside of hot stretches, and Bellinger was a perfect example of that in 2023.

‘‘If mechanically you’re not feeling good,’’ Bellinger said in a conversation with the Sun-Times late in the season, ‘‘you always have your approach to allow you to have a chance.’’

After his dominance at the plate all season, opposing pitchers adjusted the way they attacked Bellinger in the final month, throwing him more four-seam fastballs up and away. The Cubs noticed.

‘‘You obviously know the patterns,’’ Bellinger said. ‘‘It’s staying diligent to what you like and what you want and, overall, just being confident with everything.’’

He still had an .827 OPS in September, which during the course of the season still would have given him the second-best mark on the team among qualified hitters. Pretty impressive for a rough patch.

‘‘I always tell him, ‘The name on the back of the jersey still says Bellinger,’ ’’ Kelly said.

‘‘It is a fact,’’ Bellinger said with a chuckle.

It still will be true next season, no matter which team’s name is on the front.