MLB Free Agency: What's Cody Bellinger worth?

Sep 16, 2023; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Chicago Cubs first baseman Cody Bellinger (24) reacts after
Sep 16, 2023; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Chicago Cubs first baseman Cody Bellinger (24) reacts after / Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

What’s Cody Bellinger actually worth?

Bellinger and his agent, Scott Boras, apparently believe he’s worth $200 million for some unspecified period of years. That’s the number that’s been floated around, anyway, in the so-far unproductive talks to sign the premier available free agent.

The fact that Bellinger has not been signed for that amount is a pretty good indicator that major league teams are skeptical.

We can make a rough estimate of Bellinger’s value as a player by comparing his 2023 performance with that of his peers, namely the game’s other full-time center fielders and first basemen. In 2023, there were 61 players who made a preponderance of their team’s starts at either first base or center field, and they produced on average 2.12 WAR at an average cost of $5.95 million.

That puts the market dollar value of each WAR of production at $2.81 million. Bellinger was a 4.4 WAR player for the 2023 Cubs, giving him an on-field value of $12.36 million.

That’s darn close to the $12.5 million he actually earned.

But estimating Bellinger’s value going forward is more complicated than multiplying that $12.36 million by the length of the contract.

For starters, it presumes that Bellinger continues to produce at a 4.4 WAR level for the length of his contract. In fact, he may do better or worse, raising or lowering his value. How much you offer depends on how much you think Bellinger will improve or regress.

There’s also baseball inflation to consider. Just since the end of the COVID-shortened 2020 season, payrolls have risen between 10 and 14 percent annually, and there’s no reason to assume that trend will change.

If you assume that Bellinger signs for eight seasons, if you also assume that he produces at a constant 4.4 WAR across that eight-season stretch, and if you finally assume a 10 percent inflation rate, you can arrive at a conclusion that getting him for $200 million would actually be a bargain. Under that scenario, Bellinger would have generated about $257 million in on-field value for the signing team over the life of the deal.

In fact, if you reduce expectations for Bellinger’s future performance down to the 3.7 WAR level, over eight seasons he’s still a $216 million player, and still a bargain at $200 million.

But that’s a lot of presumptions, and pretty shaky ones.

Start with the assumption about consistent 4.4 WAR performance. In his seven seasons to date, the notoriously flighty Bellinger has averaged only a little better than 3.0 WAR. At that level, Bellinger is only a $170 million talent, far short of that $200 million figure.

There’s nothing magical, of course, about that eight-year contract length. Maybe you’re willing to sign Bellinger, but only for seven years. In that case, assuming he produces at 4.4 WAR, he’s still a $204 million talent. But if his production drops to an average of 2.0 WAR, his value falls to about $134.5 million, well short of the $200 million he’s reportedly demanding.

Reduce the contract length to six seasons and it is functionally impossible for Bellinger to justify $200 million. Even at an average of 4.4 WAR – the best one could reasonably expect – and evening factoring in inflation, Bellinger could produce no more than $160 million in returned value for his new team.

And if his production slips into the 2.9 WAR range, he’d be at best a $105 million player.

That’s why the Bellinger market is so hesitant to buy into the Boras scenario that he’s a $200 million player. It’s not utterly preposterous, but it requires the buyer to commit to a massively long deal and bet that Bellinger will maintain his 2023 performance for the duration, a premise the underlying metrics behind his '23 season inherently disagree with.

Even in an era of hyper-inflated salaries, that’s asking a lot.

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