The shadow Cody Bellinger’s lingering free agency cast over Cubs camp has finally subsided


MESA, Ariz. — As spring training games began and the calendar inched closer to March, it seemed as though a Cody Bellinger-sized cloud was hanging over Chicago Cubs camp. From afar, at least. But inside the room, the tenor was very different.

“It’s an understood thing, but not necessarily something that needs to be discussed,” Dansby Swanson said.

“Once you get to work,” Ian Happ said, “you’re focused on what you can do every day to make yourself better and make the team better.”

Swanson admitted it was more of a topic of conversation among players before they arrived in Arizona. Bellinger is a trusted teammate and friend whom they wanted back. But in their minds, free agency was more of an offseason discussion. Now was the time to focus on the task at hand.

“This group is so good at being present,” Swanson said. “That’s a common theme for really good teams and organizations, being able to be where your feet are.”

But it was hard to deny that the Bellinger saga needed to end before the focus could finally shift to the 2024 season. It felt impossible to talk about the team considering it felt incomplete.

“Everyone’s focused on what they can control,” Nico Hoerner said. “But obviously (Bellinger returning) clarifies the picture a lot.”

As the winter turned to spring, a Bellinger return felt like fait accompli. But why was it taking so long? Some wondered if agent Scott Boras was just asking for too much and needed to adjust to the market his players were facing. Others pointed the finger at team president Jed Hoyer, suggesting he was sticking too strictly to his small-market mindset, always searching for the perfect deal and avoiding getting financially tied up in long-term deals.

But players within the clubhouse weren’t ready to sling arrows in the direction of Hoyer or owner Tom Ricketts just yet.

“Let’s wait until the whole thing plays out before we start saying what should or shouldn’t have happened,” Happ said. “There’s still time.”

It would have been natural for the players to grow frustrated after seeing the front office seemingly dragging their feet in bringing back a beloved key piece of last year’s team. But even whispers about discontent among the group never surfaced.

In the end, Happ’s path of choosing patience over anger towards the front office proved to be the right one. Those questions can be dismissed, for now at least. Bellinger is back on a three-year deal, potentially worth $80 million, with opt-outs after years one and two.

“So often it’s easy to say, ‘Do they care?’” Swanson said of the front office and ownership. “I mean, they do. They love this organization, they love what the city of Chicago and the Cubs represent and they want to do whatever they can to put us in the best position possible to be able to have success.”

Before Sunday, some players quietly wondered where else Bellinger could possibly end up. He had enjoyed his first season with the team and fit so well both in the clubhouse and the roster. The Cubs had an obvious need and money to spend. Other potential suitors had seemingly dried up.

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The players wanted Bellinger back. They’d made that clear. There was a belief that his return could catapult this team as the favorite, on paper at least, in their division.

“Obviously a huge, huge piece of this team,” Kyle Hendricks said. “He’s going to be right in the middle of this lineup — center field, first base, his defense is always there. He’s going to be one of the best players for us.”

But whether Bellinger was a distraction to the group or not, Sunday felt like a day for the Cubs to finally move on from an interminable offseason and focus on winning in 2024.

“We kind of always felt like (the team was complete) in a way, but Belli was a unique situation,” Hendricks said. “He’s part of this club. He’s one of us. There was a little void in here for sure before he came back. Just seeing him in here, getting a hug and smiling — it was just amazing.”

Bellinger wasn’t spotted by media members at the Cubs spring training complex in Mesa Sunday morning, but players confirmed that Bellinger, who has a home in nearby Chandler, had already arrived.

“I saw him just a couple minutes ago,” Nick Madrigal said. “I wasn’t expecting him to be here this early, but he was here joking around with the guys. It was nice to see him again.”

Bellinger is back in Cubbie Blue. The Cubs can finally proceed knowing this is the group they’ll be going to battle with to start the season.

“We saw what he could do last year with this team,” Madrigal said. “Everyone got so comfortable having him in the locker room. Not only on the field, but he’s such a big impact in the clubhouse for this group. I can’t imagine not having him here. I’m glad we don’t have to worry about that this year.”

Of course, with those opt-outs, they could be talking about this all again by next fall.

“If we are,” Hoerner said, “that means he had a great year.”

(Top photo of Bellinger in 2023: Sam Greene / The Enquirer / USA Today)





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