Cody Bellinger's quiet season points to another inevitable Cubs sell-off

CHICAGO — The Chicago Cubs were supposed to revolve around Cody Bellinger. As a former MVP and a World Series champ, he has reached some of the game’s greatest heights. His comeback season energized last year’s team. His free agency loomed over the entire offseason and the start of spring training. He is the biggest name on a roster lacking star power.

Bellinger certainly isn’t a primary reason why the Cubs are such a disappointment. It’s just that his performance has been too quiet. Fans chanted his name at the team’s winter convention — and players wished for his return — because they remembered the clutch moments. He simply hasn’t done enough to stop the losing that’s made some version of a sell-off at the July 30 trade deadline feel like an inevitability.

Bellinger can’t control a game the way an NFL quarterback or an NBA superstar does. There’s no easy fix when the lineup is easy to navigate, the bullpen is banged up and the defense is bad. But the expectations are part of the deal. Bellinger’s $27.5 million base salary slightly exceeds what the Philadelphia Phillies are paying Bryce Harper and Trea Turner this year. Bellinger doesn’t have a good explanation for why the Cubs are a last-place team on the Fourth of July, but he starts by looking inward.

“I just expect more,” Bellinger said. “I want to do more for the team.”

The Cubs are 39-48 after Wednesday’s 5-3 loss to the Phillies at Wrigley Field, where a crowd of 36,653 watched Shota Imanaga match up against Zack Wheeler for six innings before a familiar scene played out. Bellinger hit a two-out, tying RBI single off Phillies reliever Matt Strahm in the seventh inning and then got picked off trying to steal second base.

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Cody Bellinger is tagged out trying to steal second base after hitting a single that tied the game in the seventh inning. (Quinn Harris / Getty Images)

On a night when Philadelphia’s lineup didn’t feature Harper, Kyle Schwarber or J.T. Realmuto, the Cubs lost yet another battle of the bullpens after Pete Crow-Armstrong couldn’t make a diving catch in center field and catcher Miguel Amaya allowed a passed ball, part of an eighth-inning sequence in which the Phillies manufactured two runs (one earned).

The Cubs don’t consistently do the little things right, and they haven’t hit on enough of the big things that have transformed the Phillies into baseball’s best team.

With their playoff odds dropping into the low single digits, the Cubs desperately need the kind of July that Bellinger delivered last summer when he led the major leagues with 40 hits and a .400 batting average. With eight home runs and 24 RBIs in 26 games that month, he removed his name from trade discussions and convinced Jed Hoyer’s front office to become buyers at the deadline.

That team was 39-45 on Independence Day last year, and still six games under .500 as late as July 20 before ripping off an eight-game winning streak. “It was obvious” last year, Bellinger said. “Like, ‘Hey, man, if we’re not winning, we’re going to see what’s out there. And then obviously we’ll track back in the offseason.’”

To this point, there has not been a similar conversation about the club’s direction. Once again, Bellinger said, he will try to ignore the trade speculation and focus on his day-to-day routine: “The other stuff, I have no idea. The other stuff, I can’t control.”

The Cubs also may not have many choices, considering Bellinger’s three-year, $80 million contract includes opt-out clauses after this season and next year. In terms of structuring a potential deal, he could wind up being a two-month rental player or a major financial commitment through 2026. His trade value also isn’t close to an apex.

Bellinger hasn’t hit a home run since June 12. Among his other eight home runs, there have been zero three-run homers, and six have come either late in blowout games or in the first inning. He also kept playing through fractured ribs after spending minimal time on the injured list. His .274 batting average and .761 OPS represent above-average production in today’s game.

“Cody’s season hasn’t been the one with much damage,” Cubs manager Craig Counsell said. “But it’s also been a pretty solid season in a lower offensive environment. He’s really not that far from a really good season. That’s what I’ve talked to him about. When those stretches come, you don’t get to predict them in a baseball season. You kind of stay in the grind.

“That’s what being a good major-league hitter is about — staying in that fight, staying in that grind, so when it shows up, you’re ready to do it. Cody’s still right there in that spot.”

That the Cubs are back in this same spot a year later — with a worse record and more Bellinger trade rumors on the horizon — makes it seem like this season is almost already over and the franchise is heading toward another reckoning.

(Top photo of Cody Bellinger hitting a single that tied the score in the seventh inning: Quinn Harris / Getty Images)

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