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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: Cody Bellinger

Once linked to the Bombers at the deadline, Bellinger is already viewed as a prime future Yankee. But is it now worth pursuing him in free agency?

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Chicago Cubs v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

Heading into the 2022-23 offseason, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman declared that the team did not have either a left fielder or a right fielder on the roster. Twelve months later, the situation is, technically, different: with Aaron Judge signed on a long-term deal, the team has a right fielder on the roster. However, with Jasson Domínguez rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, Oswaldo Cabrera seemingly a non-starter, and Everson Pereira shaky in his first stint in The Show, the Yankees still need two outfielders — preferably those who bat lefty. Cashman himself acknowledged that fact in his profanity-laden press conference/rant this past week.

Enter Cody Bellinger. Non-tendered by the Los Angeles Dodgers after the 2022 season, the 2019 NL MVP signed with the Chicago Cubs on a one-year, $12.5 million contract with a mutual option. He rewarded them in a big way, slashing .307/.356/.525 (133 OPS+, 134 wRC+) with 26 home runs, 29 doubles, and a triple en route to a Silver Slugger and being named by his peers as NL Comeback Player of the Year.

Bellinger’s 15.6-percent strikeout rate was the lowest of his career, and his 4.1 fWAR the second-highest (behind only his MVP campaign). He continued to wield a solid glove in center field: he was worth 4 Outs Above Average, and although Defensive Runs Saved (-3) and UZR/150 (-4.1) were not quite as high, that’s more than serviceable. And lastly, he manned first base on a consistent basis for the first time since 2020, as he accrued 5 DRS in 421.2 innings there.

Not surprisingly, Bellinger declined his side of the mutual option, allowing him to hit free agency. Just as unsurprisingly, reporters have linked him to his father’s primary team, the Yankees, much like they did back at the trade deadline. A poll of reporters at projects him to wind up in the Bronx. Tim Dierkes at MLB Trade Rumors foresees the Yankees landing Bellinger. Sports Illustrated agrees. Only Jim Bowden at The Athletic isn’t on this train, expecting Cashman to swing a trade for Juan Soto instead and diving into Yoshinobu Yamamoto’s market headfirst. And, on the ground at the vomit-filled GM meetings, Bob Nightengale of USA Today cited the Yankees as one of the three favorites to land Bellinger, alongside the Cubs and (once again, it seems) the Giants.

Unless this turns into another “everyone expects us to get Bryce Harper, so we won’t make a serious push to get Bryce Harper” type of situation, it appears that the Yankees will at least look into the possibility of signing Bellinger. The question, though, is whether or not it makes sense to do so.

Despite his good numbers, Bellinger’s average exit velocity, barrel percentage, and hard-hit rate were among the worst in the league. Generally speaking, that’s not a recipe for future success, which would typically turn me off from signing him. At the same time, however, Luis Arraez had an even lower barrel percentage and hard-hit rate, and he won the batting title in back-to-back years in two different leagues, thanks to an understanding of his batted-ball profile.

It’s important to go deeper than merely considering Statcast expect results, and as our very own Esteban Rivera wrote on FanGraphs, Bellinger is able to overcome his inability to drive the ball on a consistent basis by being selective at the plate and pulling the ball. Perhaps no ballpark would be perfect for Bellinger to lean into this strategy than Yankee Stadium and its short porch.

And of course, Bellinger is a strong enough dude to not even need the short porch if he hits it hard enough. Just ask Carlos Rodón:

For 2024, Bellinger is a clear fit for the Yankees. In addition to being a perfect fit for Yankee Stadium at the plate, he is good enough in center field to man the position before sliding over to left field once the Martian returns. His ability to back up Anthony Rizzo at first base is also naturally a plus.

But Bellinger will get a long-term deal this winter. Does Hal Steinbrenner want to commit six years, $144 million — The Athletic’s projection — to a player with so many question marks? Or would the Yankees rather, say, trade for Juan Soto and use that money to at least attempt to sign him to an extension? I know how I would answer that question, and it’s not with Bellinger. That said, if Soto winds up elsewhere (or not traded at all), then Bellinger isn’t the worst pivot spot.