Outfielders Michael Conforto and Cody Bellinger are both risky bets with huge payoff potential and it seems the Cubs are interested in putting some money down there. Jon Heyman of The New York Post connects the Cubs to both of them and also adds the Astros to the lengthy list of Bellinger suitors.
Conforto, 30 in March, is a real wild card since he had an excellent run of play from 2017 to 2020 but has had a frustrating time since then. He hit 97 home runs during that strong period, producing an overall batting line of .265/.369/.496. That production was 33% better than the league average hitter, as evidenced by his 133 wRC+.
He slumped in 2021 by hitting just 14 homers and slashing .232/.344/.384. His 106 wRC+ shows that he was still a bit above average, but it was a noticeable drop from his previous output. He received and rejected a qualifying offer from the Mets, still believing he could find a bigger payday despite the down season. Unfortunately, he injured his shoulder during the lockout, requiring surgery that wiped out his 2022 entirely.
After one down year and a lost campaign, it’s difficult to know what to expect from Conforto going forward. That uncertainty will put a damper on his market but he’ll surely find teams interested in taking a shot, hoping he can return to the kind of hitter he was a few years ago. He’s already been connected to the Yankees and Mets this offseason and has connected to the Blue Jays prior to that.
Bellinger, 27, is a somewhat similar case, as he also had a strong four-year run from 2017 to 2020, including an MVP season in 2019. Over that stretch, Bellinger hit 123 home runs and slashed .273/.364/.547 for a wRC+ of 137. However, he injured his shoulder during the 2020 postseason on an ill-advised celebration and hasn’t been himself since. He hit a dismal .165/.240/.302 in 2021 and rebounded slightly to .210/.265/.389 in 2022, but that latter line was still well below average.
Bellinger comes with a higher floor than Conforto as his speed and defense can make him valuable even if his bat doesn’t rebound. FanGraphs calculated him to be worth 1.7 wins above replacement this year, even with the tepid offensive production. Conforto, however, doesn’t rate out as well in those departments and really needs to produce at the plate in order to be useful.
For the Cubs, it’s not shocking to see that they are considering adding an outfielder with their lack of clarity on the grass. Seiya Suzuki is the only long-term piece in place right now, as he has four years remaining on his contract and should have right field locked down. In left field, Ian Happ should be the everyday option but he is just one year away from reaching free agency. In center field, the Cubs used a handful of different options in 2022 with no one securing the job. They also don’t have an obvious designated hitter at the moment, making it easy to slot another potent bat into their lineup.
After rebuilding in recent years, the Cubs have been rumored to be considering more aggressive spending in order to help push back to contention. They delivered on that last year to a degree, giving multi-year deals to Suzuki and Marcus Stroman, in addition to a batch of one-year contracts. Neither Bellinger nor Conforto will require top-of-the-market deals, given their recent struggles. Bellinger is reportedly looking for a one-year deal in order to hopefully return to free agency with a stronger platform season. Conforto is apparently looking for a deal somewhat similar to what Carlos Rodón got from the Giants, a two-year guarantee that allows him to opt out if he has a strong showing in year one.
The Cubs should have lots of payroll room to work with, as they are currently pegged at about $127MM, per Roster Resource. That’s well shy of 2022’s $143MM Opening Day figure and their franchise high of $203MM from 2019, with figures from Cot’s Baseball Contracts. They’ve been rumored to be in the market for the top free agent shortstops, but it’s possible that they end up losing out to clubs that are more firmly in win-now mode. Whether they succeed in that area or not, turning a 74-win team into a contender in one offseason is a challenge. Taking short-term fliers on bounceback candidates like Conforto and Bellinger makes plenty of sense, as they have the potential to both bolster the club’s chances in 2023 while also potentially becoming trade candidates at next year’s deadline if they fall back in the standings again.
As for the Astros, it was recently reported that they are targeting left-handed hitting outfielders. This is in part due to the fact that Michael Brantley is now a free agent, leaving them with Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker as the only left-handers locked into the lineup. Bellinger would help balance the lineup but, as mentioned, there’s uncertainty in what kind of production he’s likely to provide. The Astros have avoided lengthy commitments in recent years, as the last free agent they signed to a deal longer than two years was Josh Reddick back in 2016.
Bellinger’s desire for a one-year deal certainly fits their M.O., and his defensive prowess would afford the club opportunities. Alvarez got into 56 games in left field this year, a personal high for him. It’s possible he continues pushing that number but he’s still likely to spend at least some time as the designated hitter. Chas McCormick is a strong defender in center field but he hits from the right side, meaning he and Bellinger could potentially be deployed in a platoon. McCormick hit .340/.409/.563 against lefties last year has a career 125 wRC+ versus righties but just a 99 against southpaws. On days when Alvarez is the DH, McCormick and Bellinger taking the field next to Tucker could give the club a very strong defensive trio.
Houston’s payroll is actually not far off from last year’s, as Roster Resource currently has them around $164MM. That’s just $11MM shy of last year’s $175MM Opening Day figure, per Cot’s. Even a modest deal that Bellinger will likely require would get them closer to or over last year’s number, but it wouldn’t be surprising if they push their spending up on the heels of a World Series victory.
Heyman says that there are 11 teams in the Bellinger sweepstakes, which also includes known suitors in the Yankees, Giants, Rockies and Blue Jays.
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