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Yankees potential trade target: Cody Bellinger

Already, Cody Bellinger is the name most linked to the Yankees this deadline. But is he worth the prospect cost?

Chicago Cubs v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

In what has seemingly become an annual tradition, the New York Yankees come out of the All-Star Break in desperate need of an outfield bat. In 2021, injuries and regression hit Clint Frazier while Brett Gardner showed his age. In 2022, Joey Gallo’s struggles in the Bronx finally reached a point where everybody involved, player and team, needed a change. And now, in 2023, the Yankees have employed a small army of left fielders — Oswaldo Cabrera, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Jake Bauers, Aaron Hicks, Billy McKinney, Greg Allen, Willie Calhoun, Franchy Cordero, and Giancarlo Stanton — who have combined for a whopping 0.0 fWAR, 84 wRC+, -11 Defensive Runs Saved, and -5 Outs Above Average.

Because of this, the Yankees have been consistently connected with the biggest outfield bat likely to be on the trade market this year, Chicago Cubs center fielder and 2019 National League MVP Cody Bellinger.

Bellinger’s story should be familiar to everybody by now. The 2017 NL Rookie of the Year with the Dodgers, the now-28-year-old looked to be on a Hall of Fame trajectory over his free three seasons, culminating in a 2019 MVP campaign in which he hit 47 homers and was worth 7.8 fWAR. Injuries and regression, however, turned him into the worst hitter in baseball in 2021, and after a below-average 2022, the Dodgers non-tendered him. Over the winter, the Cubs signed him to a one-year, $12.5 million contract with a mutual option for 2024 ($5 million buyout), and he has seemingly returned to form, slashing .298/.355/.491 (126 wRC+) and 24 extra-base hits in 58 games.

And yet, as nice as that slash line looks, I’d be hesitant to pull the trigger if I were the Yankees.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen Yankees fans on social media saying that Bellinger is giving them “Joey Gallo vibes.” That could not be further from the truth. When we go back to the time of the Gallo trade, the outfielder had a 153 wRC+, pulled the ball hard in the air to right field — the perfect spot in Yankee Stadium for a left-handed hitter — was displaying the best plate discipline of his career, and played Gold Glove defense. He was, objectively, playing better than anyone on the Yankees roster was at the time, including Aaron Judge, and there was no reason to believe that he would decline so drastically to the point of being unplayable.

When we look at the data behind Bellinger’s 2023 campaign, I am not reminded of Joey Gallo in the slightest.

Yea, that’s a lot of blue. Sure, he doesn’t whiff or strike out a ton, but that doesn’t matter when your average exit velocity is 86.6 mph, or when you’re barreling the ball just five percent of the time. This data is comparable to players like Jurickson Profar (79 wRC+), CJ Abrams (85 wRC+), and Rougned Odor (91 wRC+). None of these players represent the type of impact bats the Yankees need to add in their lineup. Further clouding the discussion of who the “true Bellinger is,” he has been incredibly streaky this year. He opened the year slashing .205/.279/.308. From April 12th to May 7th, he posted a .346/.409/.691 line. May 8th through June 27th saw him slash .170/.220/.208, and from June 29th to the All-Star Break, he went on an absolute tear (.463/.500/.659).

That being said, there is also reason to roll the dice. He’s a Gold Glove outfielder, and assuming all three are healthy, a Cody Bellinger/Harrison Bader/Aaron Judge outfield would be, in my opinion, the undisputed best defensive outfield in baseball. Additionally, his lefty swing is tailor-made for pinstripes; if there’s a ballpark that would allow him to maximize his ability, it’s Yankee Stadium.

It’s not that difficult to imagine this in pinstripes.

On top of all that, Bellinger is a free agent at the end of the year — it seems likely that he would turn down the mutual option in favor of hitting the open market again — which should bring down the Cubs’ asking price. At the end of the day, it will be hard to find a player with as much potential value as Bellinger at a comparable prospect cost. Because of this, acquiring Bellinger would not preclude the addition of other players. In fact, it would not surprise me in the slightest if he were simply part of a much larger trade between the Yankees and Cubs akin to the Todd Frazier/David Robertson/Tommy Kahnle deal with the White Sox in 2017.