The outlook in the National League Central became clearer over the weekend when Cody Bellinger rejoined the Cubs in a move that surprised no one.

Bellinger agreed to a three-year deal for $80 million, but in reality this is a sequence of three one-year deals. Bellinger can opt out after each of the first two seasons. He’s guaranteed $30 million for 2024 and, if he stays, $30 million in 2025. If the contract remains in place for a third season, Bellinger would receive $20 million in 2026.

From the Cubs standpoint, this is a win. Chairman Tom Ricketts and president of baseball ops Jed Hoyer held firm and didn’t capitulate to agent Scott Boras, who was said to be pursuing a deal in the $200 million range.

The Cubs can plug Bellinger back into their lineup for 2024 without the potential liability of an extensive financial commitment. And if Bellinger has strong ‘24 year and decides to reenter free agency, the Cubs can attempt to make another deal with him next offseason.

A point can be made that Bellinger has the leverage. If he regresses and subsides offensively in 2024, the Cubs are obligated to pick up the $30 million tab for 2025. But rather than surrender to Boras, the Cubs were content to focus on 2024.

A year from now, there’s no telling where the rest of the division will look like, but the NL Central is wide open for a takeover in 2024. And that’s why it was critical for the Cubs to get this done.

The Cubs need Bellinger’s left-handed bat in their lineup, and he’s coming off his best season since winning the NL MVP award in 2019.

In his first year with the Cubs, Bellinger became only one of four MLB hitters in 2023 to bat at least .300, post a minimum .880 OPS, hit 25+ homers, steal 20+ bases, and knock in 95+ runs. The others were Shohei Ohtani, Ronald Acuna Jr. and Freddie Freeman.

Bellinger was worth 4.1 Wins Above Replacement to Chicago last season. That impressive WAR was indicative of his all-around value. Bellinger gives the Cubs positional flexibility, performing above-average defense in center field and at first base in ‘23. And he is, as they say, a good clubhouse guy. His teammates were thrilled to have him back.

“We saw what he could do last year with this team,” Cubs infielder Nick Madrigal told reporters. “Everyone got so comfortable having him in the locker room. Not only on the field, but he’s such a big impact in the clubhouse for this group. I can’t imagine not having him here. I’m glad we don’t have to worry about that this year.”

Should the Cardinals worry?

What does the Cubs-Bellinger reunion mean for the Cardinals’ chances of reclaiming the NL Central in 2024?

Probably not as much as you think.

Here’s some stuff …

Sure, Bellinger will help the Cubs sustain their offensive performance from a season ago. In 2023, the North Siders ranked sixth in the majors with an average of 5.6 runs per game. Bellinger’s absence would have left a void that couldn’t be covered within the organization, and the Cubs avoided that problem. This is more about preserving a team strength rather than expanding it. With Bellinger on board again, the Chicago lineup doesn’t change all that much from 2023.

Bellinger is a candidate for regression in 2024. Per Statcast, Bellinger’s underlying batted-ball metrics were on the soft side. He posted career lows in average exit velocity, hard-hit rate, and barrel percentage. Based on the quality of contact, his batting average, slugging percentage and wOBA should have been much lower in 2023.

To his credit, Bellinger made up for it in different ways: (a) change in hand placement on the bat, (b) fewer swings and misses and a noticeably higher contact rate, and (c) improved plate discipline. Bellinger’s walk rate was slightly better in 2023. But he lowered his strikeout rate to 15.6 percent – down from his 27.3% in 2022. Bellinger also benefited from fortunate batted-ball luck, putting up a career-high .319 batting average on batted balls in play.

I’d be surprised by a serious Bellinger relapse in 2024. Here’s the more pertinent question: after such a dramatic turnaround in 2023, can Bellinger do it again? From 2020 through 2022, he performed 24 percent below league average offensively per OPS+. Last season he was 33 percent above league average in OPS+. That’s a jump of 57 points.

The ZiPS forecast projects a downturn for Bellinger in 2024. If the forecasts are accurate, his WAR would drop to 2.6, his slugging percentage would fall to .441, and his OPS would decrease to .768. That’s still a good season … but not as prominent as 2023.

After the various projection systems were adjusted to account for Bellinger’s return, there wasn’t much difference in the NL Central prognosis. Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs and Clay Davenport all have the Cardinals with more wins than the Cubs and finishing in first place. But it will be close.

We shouldn’t underestimate the impact of first-year Cubs manager Craig Counsell. He’s excellent, and these projected standings don’t factor in the capabilities of a team’s manager.

Given Counsell’s history in Milwaukee, the Cubs should be more astute in running a pitching staff. And they should have a much better record in one-run games. Here’s a stat for your consideration:

Winning percentage in 1-run games since the start of the 2018 season:

Milwaukee, .603
St. Louis, .523
Chicago, .475

That’s among the reasons why I believe the Cubs are the team to beat in the NL Central. Not all managers make a difference. But Counsell definitely gave his Milwaukee team an advantage over 162 regular-season games, and the same will apply to his leadership of the Cubs.

I don’t believe the NL Central outcome hinges on Bellinger. The most significant factor will be the impact of alterations made by the Cardinals in response to their 91-loss season in 2023.

The Cardinals aggressively turned over 45 percent of their 40-man roster this past offseason. Sixty percent of their starting rotation is new. The bullpen has more substantive options and enhanced depth.

Unless St. Louis manager Oli Marmol wants to get fired – he doesn’t – it’s reasonable to expect sharpened defense and fundamentals from the Redbirds in 2024.

The Cubs already had Bellinger, and made sure to bring him back. The 2023 Cardinals didn’t have starting pitchers Sonny Gray, Kyle Gibson and Lance Lynn. Their bullpen didn’t have relievers Andrew Kittredge and Keynan Middleton. Those guys are here now — specifically targeted to lead the reconstruction.

The success – or failure – of the St. Louis planning will be the No. 1 determinant in the NL Central. If the pitching comes through, the Cardinals should win the division. If the renovated pitching staff fails, the season will disintegrate into another  disappointment.

Thanks for reading …


A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie hosts an opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. Stream it live or grab the show podcast on or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.

Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz and on Threads @miklaszb

All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Baseball Prospectus, Sports Info Solutions and Cot’s Contracts unless otherwise noted.


Bernie Miklasz

Bernie Miklasz

For the last 36 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.

While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.

Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.