New York Yankees Need Versatility And It Begins With Cody Bellinger

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Free agent center fielder/first baseman Cody Bellinger is a perfect fit when it comes to the current needs of the New York Yankees. He is a brand name ball player who is adept at playing multiple positions while demonstrating a diverse set of offensive skills as a left-handed hitter. A skillful baserunner, Bellinger’s versatility is an asset the Yankees cannot ignore given their propensity of acquiring talent that is mostly one-dimensional in nature. As trade discussions regarding outfielder Juan Soto of the San Diego Padres and the Yankees appear to have hit a stalemate, they must conduct a cost-benefit analysis when determining which ball player best suits their needs and who makes the most sense from a financial perspective.

A young free agent at 28-years-old, the prime years of Bellinger’s career are ahead of him. He signed a one-year, $17.5 million contract with the Chicago Cubs in December 2022 after being non-tendered by the Los Angeles Dodgers according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. His base salary was $12.5 million with a $5 million buyout on a $25 million mutual option for the 2024 season.

Bellinger declined the mutual option this past November and settled for the $5 million buyout. The Cubs extended a qualifying offer of a one-year, $20.325 million contract which Bellinger also declined so that he could explore free agency. According to the Associated Press, he earned a $1 million bonus for being named the 2023 National League Comeback Player of the Year Award winner.

Under the current collective bargaining agreement, a ball club’s Competitive Balance Tax payroll plays an integral role in decisions involving free agency and qualifying offers. If the Cubs’ Competitive Balance Tax payroll for the 2023 season doesn’t surpass the threshold of $233 million, they will receive a compensatory pick after Competitive Balance Round B in the 2024 draft based on Bellinger signing with another ball club. If the Cubs surpass the threshold, their compensatory pick will occur after the fourth round. Until Competitive Balance Tax payrolls for the 2023 season are confirmed at some point during the month of December, it is believed the Cubs will neither be a payor nor revenue-sharing recipient.

According to the Associated Press, the Yankees paid $9.7 million in penalties on a Competitive Balance Tax payroll of nearly $268 million in 2022 with a $230 million threshold. This also meant the Yankees faced a harsher penalty when they signed a free agent who was extended and declined a qualifying offer. Cot’s Baseball Contracts projects the Yankees’ Competitive Balance Tax payroll for the 2023 season could be $298.5 million. They would be a second-time payor under the current collective bargaining agreement.

In terms of how this could affect the Yankees’ pursuit of Bellinger, it would be similar circumstances as to when they had signed left-handed pitcher Carlos Rodón last offseason. Since Rodón had rejected a qualifying offer from the San Francisco Giants and the Yankees were Competitive Balance Tax payors, their second and fifth round draft selections were forfeited in the 2023 draft and lost $1 million from its international bonus pool. The Giants received a compensatory pick after Competitive Balance Round B in the 2023 draft.

The Padres are asking for a hefty return when it comes to the 25-year-old Soto even though he is in his final year of arbitration eligibility. A one-year contract of at least $30 million is inevitable as Soto will likely pursue free agency instead of seeking a contract extension. Bellinger and Soto are both represented by baseball’s most powerful agent, Scott Boras. The Yankees are pushing back on the Padres’ interests in right-handed pitchers Jhony Brito, Michael King, Clarke Schmidt, Drew Thorpe, and Randy Vásquez. The Padres are also interested in obtaining cash and two additional prospects while sending center fielder Trent Grisham in his second year of arbitration eligibility to the Yankees.

If the Yankees continue their pursuit of Soto, conversations regarding his future in the Bronx beyond the 2024 season begin with at least $400 million over a decade. They must solicit honest feedback from right-handed pitcher Gerrit Cole and outfielder Aaron Judge. Both need to believe that Soto is the answer to several of the Yankees’ questions while complementing their contributions as ball players and clubhouse leaders. There must be more to Soto than his youth and offensive prowess. The Yankees cannot afford another superstar who regresses under the intense pressure of playing in New York or becomes an overpaid designated hitter.

Besides criticisms regarding his hard hit percentage, enigmatic has been a word used to describe Bellinger this offseason. A former National League Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year Awards winner, there are three seasons that are being called into question as Bellinger suffered from strength issues as a byproduct of right shoulder surgery and a hairline fracture of his left fibula. Let’s also not forget the constant tinkering with his swing mechanics, the conflicting voices trying to offer support and leaving Los Angeles for the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. Bellinger experienced a dramatic fall from superstar status as he once set the record for a ball player in their first year of arbitration eligibility with a one-year, $11.5 million contract. Inquiring minds want to know if Bellinger is still a five-tool ball player worthy of a long-term contract of more than $200 million.

Bellinger’s offensive nadir is evident in data provided by Baseball-Reference. His woes throughout the 2020-2022 seasons can be quickly summarized through on-base plus slugging (OPS) and on-base plus slugging plus (OPS+). During this period, there were 138 ball players who achieved at least 1,100 plate appearances. Bellinger had the third worst OPS at .648 and the worst OPS+ of 76 which accounts for ballpark factors and adjusts to a scale where 100 is league average.

In only seven seasons, Cody Bellinger has written three uniquely different chapters in his major league career. He has gone from being a 23-year-old superstar to a ball player whose talent was compromised due to injuries and issues with self-confidence. The Chicago Cubs offered Bellinger a chance for redemption, and he capitalized on the opportunity. As Bellinger will be handsomely rewarded in free agency, he is a natural fit for the New York Yankees as they carefully weigh the costs and risks associated with a trade for Juan Soto.

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