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Mariners 2023 free agent target: Cody Bellinger

Is the Belli back? And if so, should the Mariners take a shot at signing him?

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Mariners didn’t add anyone in the Rule 5 draft yesterday, indicating they’ll be filling out the holes in their roster with actual MLB players rather than rolling the dice on another team’s flatlined prospect. This is good news! They’ve also saved up some money in their ruthless salary shedding of Eugenio Suárez and Marco Gonzales, which theoretically, could be invested back into the team via free-agent signings. Given that the Mariners have long professed an aversion to building a team in that way, plus the relative thinness of this year’s free agent market for hitters, we still feel the most likely way new players will join this team is via trade, and as such, encourage you to check out our organization-specific trade proposal series; so far we’ve covered the White Sox and the Rays.

However, the Mariners do have money to spend, and there are a handful of players to spend it on who fit the needs of the team, should they choose to do so. We’ve already profiled Matt Chapman as a possible fit to fill the Eugenio-sized hole at third, and John, whose heart remains pure and undamaged despite years of Seattle Mariners fandom, has talked about why Ohtani might want to come to Seattle. Let’s continue the dream by looking at a lefty slugger who would add some punch to the Mariners’ lineup in Cody Bellinger.

Generally, if the Dodgers want someone, that’s a good sign for that player regardless of how they’re performing. If the Dodgers are willing to cut ties with someone, well, that’s not so great. So it was for Bellinger, the Dodgers’ 2013 fourth-rounder who enjoyed three strong seasons for LA followed by three disappointing ones and an invitation to explore free agency after 2022. To his credit, Bellinger told the Dodgers “not dead yet” after being non-tendered, and responded by having a rebound year with the Cubs that saw him named Comeback Player of the Year for the NL. After striking out a career-high 27% of the time in his final year in LA, Bellinger shaved over 10 points off his strikeout rate with the Cubs, while still posting the strong walk rates he has his whole career. Under the eye of Cubs hitting coach Dustin Kelly, who he knew from his days as a Dodger, Bellinger tweaked his setup to get back on the plane where he’d done the most damage as a multiple All-Star, and got back over the 20-home run mark for the first time since his star-studded 2019 campaign.

Most importantly for Bellinger, he’s finally healthy after having dislocated his shoulder celebrating a home run in the 2020 NLCS. That shoulder injury prevented Bellinger from executing his trademark swing, which relies on full, powerful extension of the the long levers of the 6’4” lefty. The ongoing pandemic, followed by the owner’s lockout which prevented him from accessing MLB training staff, complicated Bellinger’s return from injury as the young player—a high school draftee by the Dodgers who had never dealt with serious injury before in his career—struggled to figure out how to manage his own rehab. A foot injury further tanked his numbers. But the Cubs helped Bellinger get back on track, and now he’s the most intriguing free agent hitter not named Ohtani.

If you have your doubts about Bellinger, you’re not alone. Bellinger’s hard-hit rate is one of the lowest in the league, at just 10%, and his barrel rate and average exit velocities are both way down in the blue as well. That seems...odd for a player whose 2019 batting percentile rankings look like a Tarantino film, and even odder for a player who slugged over .500 this year. The homers helped, but Bellinger is also elite at using his plus speed to stretch singles into doubles; even during his down offensive years, Bellinger is a well above-average runner whose speed translates in both his defense and base-running. However, there are real concerns Bellinger won’t be able to replicate those speed-based skills as he ages. Ironically, cutting down his strikeouts and making more soft contact, while improving his statline for 2023 and case moving into free agency, might ultimately be more damaging for the kind of hitter Bellinger is when he’s at his best: a straight-up masher with a swing that brings violent delights.

While the Mariners have said they’re looking for a righty hitter, Bellinger’s skillset is tantalizing in T-Mobile Park. Bellinger hit 26 homers this year; he would have had 27 at T-Mobile, which is tied for third-most in the league. His combination of power and the short porch in right field would be nightmarish for opposing pitchers. However, even this new-look softer-hitting Bellinger would succeed in the spacious confines of T-Mobile Park: as John has pointed out, hitters who make ideal hard, line-drive contact are actually punished in T-Mobile, so a combination of putting the ball in play softly and walloping it into the seats could play well in Seattle. Bellinger also would slot in nicely in the Mariners’ outfield; he wouldn’t need to patrol center but could cover a corner, and the Mariners could also use their stable of young outfielders to give him days at DH, as Bellinger did miss a month of the 2023 season with a knee injury. However, Bellinger also brings above-average defensive value when healthy; he’s more than capable of manning center field and could also help spell Julio Rodríguez.

But all of this would come at a steep cost. The 28-year-old’s market has inflated rapidly over the off-season, with initial reports suggesting $150-$200M, but agent Scott Boras reportedly looking for $250 or $300M. That latter figure is likely a Borasian invention; with the current financial state of baseball, it’s seems unlikely that a team, even a desperate one, going $300 or more for a player coming off one good bounceback season after a major injury, even with Bellinger’s early-career track record. Inflation is real, but it’s hard to imagine Bellinger, two years older than Bryce Harper was when he signed his massive $330M deal with the Phillies in 2019 with a less-consistent track record, getting a Harper-level deal.

However, in a weak class for free agent hitters, the advantage remains with Bellinger’s camp. The Yankees landing Juan Soto would theoretically take a significant suitor out of the running, and wherever Ohtani signs will remove another. That still leaves a handful of clubs fighting for Bellinger’s services, and the Mariners, who reportedly “blanched” at Ohtani’s number, don’t seem likely to outbid a higher-revenue club like the Giants, Mets, or Cubs. Bellinger also has a Qualifying Offer attached, meaning whatever team signs him would have to surrender a draft pick (and for teams over the luxury tax threshold like the Mets and Yankees, the penalties are more severe).

Giving up draft picks, playing in the deepest part of the free agent pool, anointing a new franchise cornerstone when they already have Julio - none of these things feel “Mariners-y.” But this is the kind of splash move that reinvigorates a fanbase after an off-season full of steadily intensifying discontent. Bellinger’s market will continue to evolve as the bigger dominoes fall—Ohtani, Soto, and newcomer Yoshinobu Yamamoto. If Bellinger’s market returns to what evaluators saw prior to Boras’s blustering—with six years, $150M being a common projection—that’s an easy way to upgrade the team without surrendering any assets currently in-house...other than money and the ever-precious roster flexibility, of course.

Poll

What deal would you offer Cody Bellinger to become a Mariner (that you also think he will sign, be honest!)

This poll is closed

  • 31%
    None; I’m not a Belli Believer
    (419 votes)
  • 32%
    6 years, $150M
    (430 votes)
  • 25%
    6 years, $175M
    (331 votes)
  • 9%
    The Jason Heyward: 8 years, $200M
    (127 votes)
  • 0%
    The Bryce Harper: 10 years, $300M
    (12 votes)
1319 votes total Vote Now