A week ago it looked like fans might be bringing pitchforks and torches to Cubs Convention. In fact, 24 hours before the 37th annual winter gathering of Cubs fans kicked off in downtown Chicago I was wondering what the turnout would look like. A storm was bearing down on the city and there were rumors that passes were still available. I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect as I arrived at the Sheraton.
Rumors of Cubs Con’s demise were greatly overstated. In fact, the Opening Ceremony was packed and while there were hints of dissatisfaction as loud “CO-DY” chants interrupted Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts’ opening remarks five minutes into the official program, there were also tremendous moments of joy.
Admittedly, some of the agitation was likely quelled by the exceptional deal the Cubs front office reached with Japanese pitcher Shōta Imanaga mere days before the event. Imanaga’s opening press conference with a nod to “Go Cubs Go” certainly helped:
Shōta Imanaga is going to fit right in at Wrigley Field. pic.twitter.com/pVTjXQbXqW— MLB (@MLB) January 12, 2024
A savvy trade with the Dodgers for Michael Busch and Yency Almonte also gave fans a reason to breathe a sigh of relief that President of Baseball Operations Jed Hoyer and General Manager Carter Hawkins were not content to rest on their laurels with the current team makeup.
But there is clearly still work to be done. Cody Bellinger came up at least once in every panel I attended. Occasionally he came up in back-to-back fan questions. Even when he wasn’t asked about directly, Bellinger’s impact on the Cubs was present. The lede photo for this piece is the celebration the Cubs started doing last season and the hitters panel explained that Bellinger originated that during his red hot summer as he explained to his teammates where he was looking for the ball for each hit. Even incoming manager Craig Counsell was asked why he hadn’t re-signed last year’s National League Comeback Player of the Year. And Saturday morning of the festivities, The Athletic’s Patrick Mooney dropped a piece detailing that Cubs fans aren’t the only people who want Bellinger back in blue pinstripes:
“They probably get sick of me calling,” Swanson said Friday.
It’s safe to assume Cubs executives know what Swanson thinks of Cody Bellinger, the former MVP who needed only one pillow contract/comeback season to become a fan favorite at Wrigley Field, a magnetic presence in the clubhouse and a great example for other hitters. Swanson signed a seven-year, $177 million contract last offseason with the expectation the Cubs would continue making big investments in players like Bellinger.
“We text here and there,” Swanson said. “First of all, if I had any (update), I couldn’t say anything. Second of all, I get it. He’s going through free agency. I’ve been through it. We have a good friendship and a relationship. A lot of it is just checking in and seeing how he’s doing, how the offseason is going, offering any advice and things of that nature for free agency just because I have been through it so recently.
“He’s obviously an awesome player and we’d love to have him back. I think that’s about as clear as day. So hopefully, we can make that happen.”
In case that piece in The Athletic wasn’t clear enough, Dansby also used his time on the hitters panel to make his preferences crystal clear:
While the lack of Cody Bellinger was the elephant in the room, the slow offseason was an undercurrent of multiple panels. It came up during Craig Counsell’s introductory session with fans. He mentioned he breathed a sigh of relief when Jed Hoyer characterized the current state of the offseason as the third or fourth inning. It’s safe to assume that everyone from the front office to the back row knows that the 2024 team is far from finished.
But it’s really unclear how much a player and fan pressure campaign can or should move Jed Hoyer. Hoyer, who made some comments about his admiration for “a small market mentality” to roster construction that made me audibly groan to open the weekend, has proven to be pretty impervious to what fans on Twitter want. He’s probably more likely to listen to last season’s premier acquisition, starting shortstop Dansby Swanson, but Dansby definitely doesn’t call the shots either. While speculation abounds that a reunion between Bellinger and the Cubs is likely, there are obstacles that stand in the way of that reunion. Specifically, Bellinger’s comeback season has some less than great underlying metrics that are going to make Jed Hoyer cautious of signing him to the largest contract in the history of the franchise and Scott Boras absolutely believes that if he waits, he can get Bellinger a deal of that magnitude.
It’s like the greatest staring contest of all time and I can’t imagine a few “CO-DY” chants are going to change the parameters of that game.
That said, Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projection for the Cubs also dropped over the weekend at FanGraphs and as has been the case in recent years the NL Central looks like a tightly-bunched batch of clubs who all look likely to post 82-88 wins. It’s easy to look at this depth chart and see how adding Cody Bellinger to the middle of the lineup could push them over the top:
A lot of things could still happen on the way to Spring Training, but it seems like the stars could be aligning for Bellinger to return to the Friendly Confines as a Cub. The Athletic’s Sahadev Sharma generally has the pulse of the Cubs front office and today’s look at the probability of various Boras clients winding up on the North Side of Chicago when the dust settles is no exception:
That said, it’s Bellinger’s bat that is the perfect fit. They should agree with Boras that there’s a need for an established offensive presence in their lineup. The Cubs need a lefty slugger, and he fits the bill. Bellinger may not be the only possibility to fill that role, but he’s certainly the most logical.
This is all lining up as a best-case scenario for Hoyer and the Cubs. There was never a chance Hoyer would meet Boras’ demands early on. They needed this free agency to drag on. They needed likely suitors to fall to the wayside and desperate heads of baseball operations to go in other directions. With every day that passes, it feels like the percentage chance that Bellinger returns to Chicago increases.
Even with the addition of Busch and the speculation that he could perhaps handle first base defensively, the unknowns surrounding prospects like Busch (or, for that matter, the perceived centerfielder of the future, Pete Crow-Armstrong) cannot be overstated. For every prospect that hits there are many more who will just be an elite rarity score on Immaculate Grid someday. Cody Bellinger has question marks of his own, but his ability to make an impact on a big league roster is not one of them. Here’s hoping Jed Hoyer got the crystal clear memo from the fans, writers and leaders in his own clubhouse: No available free agent makes as much sense on the Cubs as Cody Bellinger. I’m not worried about a year or two of $25 million on the Cubs books in 2030, but I am very concerned about a President of Baseball Operations who isn’t willing to act like he runs a big market team.