‘Big year’: How Cody Bellinger, Cubs are trying to recapture MVP swing

Bellinger’s offensive numbers have tumbled since his 2019 MVP season.

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The Cubs introduced Cody Bellinger as their new center fielder in a press conference Tuesday.

The Cubs introduced Cody Bellinger as their new center fielder in a press conference Tuesday. File photo.

Mark J. Terrill/AP

New Cubs center fielder Cody Bellinger wasn’t interested in making excuses for his poor performance at the plate the last two seasons.

Multiple times during his introductory news conference Tuesday on Zoom, he deflected questions about how injuries might have affected his swing.

‘‘I think my favorite thing that I’ve learned is, you can’t change the past, but you can learn from it,’’ Bellinger said. ‘‘There were definitely injuries involved, and your body wasn’t moving how it used to. I can go on and on. But looking forward, where I’m at right now, I’m feeling really good and confident and strong.’’

In offering Bellinger a guaranteed $17.5 million for one year (with a mutual option in 2024), the Cubs are betting they at least will be able to help him improve from his last two seasons with the Dodgers, when he posted the third-worst OPS among qualified center fielders.

‘‘He’s a really good fit from a perspective of . . . great defense, great baserunning, left-handed bat with the potential to have an uptick offensively,’’ Cubs manager David Ross said this month at the winter meetings.

In a best-case scenario, Bellinger will rediscover the offensive success of his 2019 MVP season. If he doesn’t, he still will bolster the Cubs’ defense up the middle, which is set up to be their strong suit next season.

Bellinger, 27, conceded that 2023 is ‘‘definitely a big year’’ for him. Neither he nor the Cubs are expected to pick up the mutual option, which effectively pushes $5 million to the 2024 payroll. The short-term deal amounts to a ‘‘pillow contract,’’ a term coined by Bellinger’s agent, Scott Boras, that will set the stage for his next deal.

‘‘It’s definitely important; I’m not gonna say it’s not,’’ Bellinger said of how he performs next season. ‘‘But I think that where I’m at right now and how I feel mentally, physically, I’m in a pretty good spot.

‘‘And it just makes me excited to start working out with the staff and talking through whatever we need to talk through to get going.’’

Bellinger’s last two seasons were affected by plenty of injuries, but he most notably had surgery on his right shoulder in November 2020 and suffered a broken left leg in the first week of the 2021 season. That’s where the feeling Bellinger alluded to — that his body wasn’t moving how it had before — came into play.

Mechanically, Bellinger now is focused on his lower half. And he’s working on translating ‘‘body-specific training,’’ as opposed to general strength training, into the batting cage.

‘‘Just being athletic and letting my ability take over,’’ Bellinger said.

The Cubs will provide some familiarity as Bellinger adjusts his swing. Assistant hitting coach Johnny Washington was a minor-league hitting coach in the Dodgers’ system while Bellinger was making his way up through the ranks. Washington left for the Padres’ organization in 2016, but Bellinger said they stayed in touch.

‘‘He’s just an intelligent guy and loves baseball,’’ Bellinger said. ‘‘And he’s known me since I was 17, 18 years old.’’

Bellinger was 17 when the Dodgers selected him in the fourth round of the 2013 draft. He had spent his whole career in the organization until the Dodgers non-tendered him last month, thrusting him into free agency.

‘‘A little bittersweet,’’ Bellinger said. ‘‘But at the end of the day, man, I understood. I don’t have any hard feelings. I get it. And I took it as a new opportunity.’’

Less than three weeks later, he agreed to terms with the Cubs.

‘‘I’m excited that I’m going to be able to do this at Wrigley Field, in a Cubs jersey,’’ he said. ‘‘And I understand how special it is to play for both organizations. Pretty cool.’’

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