Which teams could land top slugger Cody Bellinger?

Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

When agent Scott Boras has multiple puns ready about a free agent of his, it usually means he has a good one. That certainly is the case for 28-year-old Cody Bellinger, who possesses the best left-handed production of any player left available.

Bellinger, at least according to Boras, is the "belle of the ball" this winter after providing a "full Belly" for the Chicago Cubs last season, winning the National League Comeback Player of the Year Award and a Silver Slugger. Now, it's time for him to cash in after signing a one-year, $17.5 million contract with Chicago before the 2023 season.

That doesn't mean anything is close at hand for the 2019 NL MVP, though, as the history of bigger-name Boras clients suggests a drawn-out affair. Bellinger isn't likely to be celebrating Christmas or even New Year's with his new team.

"My experience with [Boras] is that he asks for a big number of dollars and years and doesn't budge for quite a while," one NL executive said. "He's not afraid to carry a guy into February or March as a free agent. Then he figures it only takes one team to blink and they usually do."

So who's going to blink on Bellinger?

Several left-handed sluggers have already changed teams or signed free agent contracts this offseason. The New York Yankees checked a desperately needed box with the acquisition of Juan Soto in a blockbuster trade with the San Diego Padres. The Los Angeles Dodgers signed MLB's top free agent, Shohei Ohtani, to a $700 million deal. And the San Francisco Giants inked Korea Baseball Organization MVP Jung Hoo Lee.

Those moves leave the Toronto Blue Jays and Cubs -- teams that came up short in the Ohtani sweepstakes -- as Bellinger's potential top suitors. Boras has made his sales pitch to teams across the GM and winter meetings, using two other clients -- Corey Seager and Bryce Harper -- as Bellinger's comps.

"What have they done after they've signed when they're 28?" Boras said at the winter meetings earlier this month. "Harper got better. Seager has gotten better. It tells you that those kinds of players, who can do that at such a young age, actually get better beyond what they did at a younger age, once they're healthy and returned to play."

It's telling, said another executive, that Boras blew right by former Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant, who won an MVP at 24 years old and then battled injuries before signing a seven-year, $182 million deal with the Colorado Rockies at 29. Bryant has played just 122 games across two seasons in Colorado, with an OPS+ of 93.

That career arc mimics Bellinger's -- including the injuries -- though Bellinger is hitting free agency a year younger and from the more coveted left side of the plate. He also had an OPS+ of 133 last season, while Bryant had a 124 OPS+ before hitting the market.

Meanwhile, Harper and Seager both signed for more than $300 million. That's the air Boras is living in right now.

"It reminds me of Seager's free agency," Boras told ESPN recently. "Seager got hurt in his platform season. Cody had a great platform season."

Boras believes chatter that Bellinger won't repeat his .307/.356/.525 slash line from 2023 simply because his average exit velocity (87.9 mph) was the lowest of his career should be dismissed, as the seven-year veteran cut down on his swing -- creating softer contact -- with two strikes. In fact, Bellinger had the second-highest batting average (.279) in that situation, behind only Luis Arraez of the Miami Marlins, who won his second straight batting title in 2023.

While it's no wonder Boras is referencing players who have signed for more than $300 million, there has been no indication he is seeking that much for this client. He is looking for a package well over $200 million, according to sources familiar with the situation, but it's unclear where the ceiling for Bellinger's services will land.

"Boras is sticking to the money that was mentioned at the start of the free agency market," one executive said. "He will take it well into the winter. Not budging."

Assuming Bellinger is amenable to playing in Toronto, the Blue Jays may have the edge over Chicago in several ways. They are already a contending team, having made the postseason each of the past two years. But they're missing balance in their lineup in the same way the Yankees were before acquiring Soto. The Cubs are still in building mode, not necessarily ready to overextend themselves for one player.

"The Cubs aren't a 'pay a guy until he's 40 at a maximum rate' type of team," one NL executive said. "The Blue Jays may not be either, but they're a bit more desperate to finish their roster building. They may match his price."

Additionally, the Jays recently signed a Boras client to a multiyear deal -- pitcher Hyun Jin Ryu signed a four-year, $80 million contract -- while the Cubs have stayed out of that market under owner Tom Ricketts. Boras and Ricketts don't have the type of relationship where the former can just pick up the phone and get a deal done with the latter, according to sources familiar with the situation. That is a tool Boras has used in the past.

"He will absolutely chat with an owner directly and work that angle," an executive said. "No doubt about that."

Boras reiterated that point: "A lot of this has to do with ownership. It has to do with their commitment. It has to do with their vision of what they're going to do to develop [through free agency]."

If Bellinger leaves for the Blue Jays, it could complete their lineup while leaving the same hole in the Cubs'. So it might take a change of heart from the Cubs -- or Bellinger taking less money -- for Chicago to avoid losing him.

As Boras has said, "The Cubs got a full Belly [last season]. They're going to have to loosen their belts to keep Bellinger."