With the Winter Meetings just days away, the Yankees have been linked to one free agent hitter more than any other.
That would be Cody Bellinger, who slashed .307/.356/.525 with 26 home runs, 97 RBIs and a career-high 20 stolen bases for the Cubs in 2023. Bellinger’s first season in The Windy City earned him Comeback Player of the Year honors on Tuesday night, as the 2021 and 2022 campaigns saw Bellinger impeded by injury and poor performance before the Dodgers non-tendered him roughly a year ago.
A Rookie of the Year in 2017 and MVP in 2019, Bellinger is an intriguing yet imperfect free agent in a limited market. The Yankees, meanwhile, need lefty-hitting outfielders after an abysmal offense contributed to the team’s first playoff absence since 2016.
Given their needs, the Yankees are expected to make a run at Bellinger. But should they?
Pro: He was what the Yankees needed in 2023
Bellinger is the second-best free agent hitter behind Shohei Ohtani, and his 2023 production would have been a huge boost to the Yankees on both sides of the ball. His port-side swing is perfect for Yankee Stadium’s short porch in right, and his average would have been welcomed by an offense that hit .227. Bellinger’s 133 OPS+ would have ranked second on the team behind Aaron Judge, and his 15.6 K% was a career-low.
Bellinger is also a strong defender in center and is fast and young enough to add some athleticism and youth to the Yankees’ veteran roster.
The Yankees are now in desperate need of offense and a center fielder, as Jasson Domínguez will miss at least a few months in 2024. Domínguez or Bellinger could always move to left once the former is back, though another position could be in the latter’s future.
Con: Injury history & poor performance
Bellinger suffered a lot of pain between 2020 and 2021, enduring shoulder surgery, a hairline fracture in his left leg and a broken rib. Those injuries took a toll, especially from 2021-2022, when Bellinger hit .193/.256/.355 with 29 homers, 104 RBI and a 66 OPS+ over 239 games.
Scott Boras, Bellinger’s agent, has blamed those two seasons on the injuries and previously told USA Today’s Bob Nightengale that the Dodgers asked his client to play with a “35% strength deficiency.” Boras cited the strength and injury woes once again at the GM Meetings earlier this month.
Those factors explain how Bellinger’s performance fell off. While he rebounded in 2023, teams could be wary of his injury history.
Pro: Big-market experience
Bellinger won several prestigious regular season awards, an NLCS MVP and a World Series ring in Los Angeles. Then he enjoyed a renaissance in Chicago. So he’s no stranger to thriving in major markets.
He’s also spent time in a Yankees locker room, as his father, Clay, donned pinstripes from 1999-2001. The light-hitting utilityman won two World Series rings in the process.
Boras has made it known that Bellinger would be “comfortable” in New York, and he’s more tested than most who have never played in the city. He’s got the pedigree, experience under bright lights and some postseason success.
Con: Concerning metrics
While Bellinger had terrific surface numbers in 2023, his underlying metrics suggest that his resurgence may have been assisted by some luck. That has led to questions over whether his bounce-back is sustainable.
Bellinger’s 31.4% hard-hit rate was a career-low and ranked in the bottom 10% of the league. His 6.1 Barrel% and 87.9 mph average exit velocity were also personal worsts. Bellinger’s .327 xwOBA ranked in the 53rd percentile, and his .319 BABIP exceeded his career mark of .285.
The topic of analytics and just how much the Yankees rely on data has dominated their offseason as much as talk of any free agent target, making Bellinger a fascinating option given the success he had in 2023.
Pro: Balance and versatility
The Yankees need to add multiple impact bats to their lineup, and at least one has to hit lefty. Bellinger fits that bill if his 2023 numbers are repeatable.
He would also give the Yankees an outfielder who can play center well, has won a Gold Glove in right, and could move to Yankee Stadium’s vast left field if the team wants to keep Domínguez in center.
Better yet, Bellinger can also play first base, a valuable option down the road given his injury history and Anthony Rizzo’s contract status. The 34-year-old first baseman, hindered by post-concussion syndrome, is coming off the worst season of his career and can become a free agent after the 2024 season.
Cons: Price tag in a limited market
It remains to be seen what Bellinger will cost, as contract projections have ranged from six-year deals below $150 million to double-digit years with price tags exceeding $200 million. That end of the spectrum sounds excessive, but this is also an extremely thin market.
After Bellinger, the next tier of lefty-hitting free agent center fielders includes the veteran Kevin Kiermaier and the unproven Jung Hoo Lee. There’s not much to get excited about after them.
The Yankees could also trade for an outfielder. They’ve got their eyes on Padres superstar Juan Soto, but he plays left. The Cardinals, among other teams, also have a few trade chips that would fit.
Bellinger comes with some concerns, but the Yankees have put themselves in a position where they must take risks after passing on safer bets in the past. And while a limited market may drive Bellinger’s price up, it also means the Yankees have few options to choose from, at least in free agency.
With that in mind, going after Bellinger is a worthwhile endeavor, so long as the terms of his deal fall somewhere in the middle of the aforementioned projections.
Yes, the Yankees have hurt themselves by building a roster around injury-prone players. And yes, Bellinger’s advanced metrics raise an eyebrow. But the Yankees sorely need offense, and this is a player who produced a ton of it in 2023 in spite of analytics. Additionally, Bellinger can fill multiple needs now and in the future.
One other caveat: Bellinger can’t be the only bat the Yankees add this winter, and pursuing him should not stop them from doing the same with Soto. This doesn’t need to be a one-or-the-other situation.