Cody Bellinger feeling refreshed, confident in first spring training with Cubs

Bellinger is aiming to bounce back after a few down years at the plate.

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Cody Bellinger works out at Cubs spring training camp in Mesa, Arizona.

Cody Bellinger works out at Cubs spring training camp in Mesa, Arizona.

John Antonoff/For the Sun-Times

MESA, Ariz. — Cubs center fielder Cody Bellinger celebrated his live batting-practice home run with a slow walk back toward his new teammates, who stood outside of the third-base dugout at Sloan Park. He touched fingers with fellow outfielder Seiya Suzuki, stepped toward hitting coach Dustin Kelly and shrugged.

“Confidence is big, right?” Kelly said later Thursday. “For all of these guys. Live BPs is one of the toughest settings for any hitter to get into, especially this early in the spring. So any barrel that happens in a live BP is just extra confidence.”

No one’s saying an opposite-field shot off lefty Drew Smyly in spring training means Bellinger is back in MVP form. His offensive slippage since that 2019 season, and the injuries that contributed, are well documented. But in that swing, Kelly also saw the adjustments Bellinger has been working on this offseason.

“Athleticism,” Kelly said when asked what he’s looking for from Bellinger in batting practice. “One thing that we’ve talked about a lot the last two months is maintaining his athleticism, being comfortable in the box and just seeing the baseball really well, picking up pitches. But when he’s athletic and easy, it turns into a really good swing.”

Bellinger highlighted similar themes when he first joined the club, after the Dodgers non-tendered him in November.

“We were both on the same page from Day 1,” Bellinger said. “And that was a big reason why I wanted to sign here. Because it was speaking what I feel is right, and they’ve accepted it, and they agree, and we’ve just been working towards it.”

When he signed with the Cubs, Bellinger already had worked to adjust his workout program, being intentional about which movements and muscles he was training. But in the months since, he has been able to work with the Cubs’ staff on his flexibility, core and base.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, who knows Cubs manager David Ross and president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer well, expects Bellinger to “thrive in that environment.”

Maybe Roberts was just being nice. But Roberts saw Bellinger at his best, and then he watched injuries — most notably right shoulder surgery in November 2020 and a broken left leg in the first week of the 2021 season — lead to compensation for lost strength, which led to mechanical issues.

“You lose your mechanics, and you kind of forget who you were,” Roberts said during spring-training media days two weeks ago. “And there’s a lot of searching.”

The Dodgers never found the key to righting Bellinger’s swing.

“We tried everything, and it just didn’t land, and we couldn’t figure it out,” Roberts said.

Maybe it was all too much at once. At least that’s the Cubs’ hope, that narrowing the focus will help Bellinger tap into his natural ability. Overthinking in the batter’s box is always a recipe for disaster.

“I’m very free, feeling athletic, feeling strong, feeling refreshed and feeling confident,” Bellinger said. “So it’s a pretty good combination right there.”

So how does that all manifest in Bellinger’s swing?

“It’s more of a relaxed look in the box,” Kelly said. “He’s always been [in] a tall, upright stance, but there’s a little bit of flexibility in there as he starts to make his move towards the pitcher and kind of gets into his heel strike.”

Kelly is taking note of those elements when Bellinger steps in for live batting practice, more than the results. But hitting a line drive off a left-handed pitcher over the fence in left-center certainly doesn’t hurt.

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