Cubs Retrospective: Mark Bellhorn, 2002

It’s one of the most bizarre seasons for an individual player wearing a Chicago Cubs jersey over the last several decades. In 2002, utility infielder Mark Bellhorn put together his finest offensive regular season.

The Cubs themselves weren’t much on the field. Following an impressive (but nonetheless shocking) 88-win season the year before, they reverted back to painful mediocrity for an unbelievably forgettable follow-up campaign.

In 2002, the Cubs’ heart of the order included an aging Sammy Sosa (33), an injured Moises Alou (35) and an uninterested Fred McGriff (38). This collection of sluggers produced 94 of the team’s 200 home runs, and while Sosa’s 49 home runs and .288/.399/.594 slash still made him one of the most feared hitters in the game, he wasn’t surrounded by star power, despite the reputations of McGriff and Alou.

And then there was the remainder of the roster — Todd Hundley (33), Delino DeShields (33), Joe Girardi (37), Bill Mueller (31 and oft-injured), Darren Lewis (34) — which along with Sosa, McGriff and Alou would have been the result of a mighty fine fantasy draft on 1998’s Major League Baseball Feat. Ken Griffey Jr., but didn’t form a quality lineup in 2002.

They did have some youth in the pipeline, notably everyday center fielder Corey Patterson and starter Mark Prior, both crown jewels of the Cubs’ farm system. It wasn’t enough to offset the rapid decline of pretty much every veteran on the team. 

Then you have Mark Bellhorn.

Just 27 years old, the switch-hitting Bellhorn spent the previous five seasons bouncing up and down through the Oakland A’s system, never making a dent at the big-league level. He was known to strike out a lot, but he made up for that with pristine patience; between 1996 and 2001 in the minors, Bellhorn never had an on-base percentage lower than .370. A definite product of the Oakland system.

He also had tendencies of superb power. In 2000 with the Triple-A Sacramento River Cats, he slashed .266/.399/.521 with 24 home runs. Yet somehow, even while being a dream-come-true for Billy Beane, he just never stuck in Oakland.

Following the 2001 regular season, the Cubs sent Australian prospect Adam Morrissey — who hit 14 home runs and walked 80 times (against 82 strikeouts) while slashing .309/.427/.524 for the Single-A Lansing Lugnuts — to Oakland in exchange for Bellhorn. He would get a second chance in Chicago.

Bellhorn would be used by Don Baylor as a platoon infielder to start the 2002 regular season. He would frequently spell DeShields at second and Chris Stynes at third, and established himself in April with three home runs and an .813 OPS in 59 at-bats. Near the end of May, he was shaping up to be a valuable replacement-level utility man for Baylor.

His first half of the 2002 season followed his minor league trends. Bellhorn struck out twice as often as he walked, but was still able to muster an excellent .391 on-base percentage. His 11 home runs and 90 total bases in just 41 games — starting only half of them — made him a surprising power threat in the Cubs lineup. He was so impressive that as of July 1, Don Baylor named him the everyday second baseman.

It was at that moment Bellhorn, who never saw time as an everyday player, began to truly flourish. In July 2002, Bellhorn saw more plate appearances than he did in May and June combined, and hit .313/.416/.650 with six home runs.

Don Baylor would be fired by the Cubs mid-season, but interim manager Bruce Kimm continued using Bellhorn every day, often as a leadoff hitter.

On August 29, with 21 homers to his credit for the year, Bellhorn experienced his defining moment in a Cubs uniform. With one out and one on in the fourth inning of a Thursday afternoon at Miller Park, Bellhorn, batting right, launched a 410-foot home run to straight-away center field off former Cub lefty Andrew Lorraine. The offense surged behind him, scoring four more runs to open up a 6-0 lead.

They chased Lorraine, but his replacement, Jose Cabrera, didn’t fare much better. With two outs and having already batted around in the inning, Bellhorn, now batting left, smoked a three-run homer into right field to put the Cubs ahead 9-0.

With that home run, Mark Bellhorn became the first National League player in baseball history to homer from both sides of the plate in the same inning. His teammate, Sammy Sosa, was the only other player in Cubs history before Bellhorn to hit two home runs in the same inning, which he achieved in 1996. The five RBI he logged in the inning matched the team record, set by Billy Williams in 1961.

All told, the Cubs would end the 2002 season with a hideous 67-95 record in one of the most forgettable years in recent franchise history. Bellhorn was one of few bright spots, totaling an impressive .258/.374/.512 slash with 27 home runs and 133 OPS+ in 529 plate appearances.

He tied Sosa for the team lead in strikeouts (144), but his on-base and slugging percentages made up for that. Bellhorn also avoided the double play better than anyone on the Cubs with 250 plate appearances or more, only grounding into six. His 3.4 WAR was fourth-best on the 2002 Cubs, behind Matt Clement (4.0), Kerry Wood (4.5) and Sosa (5.7), and might have been higher had he played every day between April and June.

As the Cubs brought in Dusty Baker to manage and traded for Mark Grudzielanek to play second base in 2003, Bellhorn was be moved to the Cubs’ revolving door at third base, where he struggled to replicate his success from the previous season. His two home runs and .209 average helped him fall out of favor with Baker, even while mustering an impressive .341 on-base percentage despite his struggles.

It didn’t help that Bellhorn — whose career average and slugging splits were considerably higher against left-handed pitching — saw only 71 of his 249 at-bats against lefties. One can argue that Dusty Baker was completely misusing Bellhorn and gave up on him when the results didn’t show, instead of making adjustments to his lineup.

On June 20, general manager Jim Hendry sent Bellhorn to the Colorado Rockies for late-nineties Cubs utility man Jose Hernandez, who was then sent to Pittsburgh a month later in a package that brought Kenny Lofton and Aramis Ramirez to Chicago.

And thus, one of the great storylines from the dreadful previous season ended not with a bang, but with a whimper, leaving Bellhorn as merely a one-hit wonder in the eyes of Cubs fans.

The joke, as usual, would be on the Cubs. After toiling away as a utility player in Colorado where his power never improved, he was sent packing to Theo Epstein’s Boston Red Sox for the 2004 season. While Bellhorn struggled in 2003, he was the ideal Epstein player: versatile, cheap and under the radar despite his track record as an unbelievably efficient hitter.

Bellhorn delivered for his new squad, hitting 17 home runs and driving in a career-high 82 with an awesome .264/.373/.444 slash in 138 games. He struck out an astounding (and league leading) 177 times, but as history indicates, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing; he only grounded into eight double plays all year. His 3.6 WAR was seventh on a Red Sox roster that boasted the likes of Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez, Curt Schilling and David Ortiz, among other greats.

He would become a legend in the Boston sports lexicon due to his performance in the 2004 postseason. While Bellhorn struggled mightily for most of it, he hit the go-ahead three-run home run off former Cubs teammate Jon Lieber in the eighth inning of Game 6 of the ALCS, a victory for Boston that would eventually tie the series en route to their shocking American League title over the rival Yankees.

This success in the clutch carried into the World Series against the Cardinals. Tied 9-9 in the eighth inning of Game 1, Bellhorn slapped a two-run blast off (another) former Cub Julian Tavarez to help the Red Sox to an 11-9 Game 1 victory. In Game 2, he hit a two-run double that helped Boston to what would end up being an insurmountable three-run lead.

As the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, the Cubs failed to make the playoffs, despite being chosen in spring training as championship favorites.

That isn’t to say the Cubs lost because he wasn’t on the roster, but Mark Bellhorn is a glorious symbol of the painful “what could have been” cloud surrounding that entire era of Chicago Cubs baseball. It was a prime example of an older regime not recognizing the value in one of their assets, and letting someone else utilize it for their own championship benefit. It was classic Cubs.

Reality is, Mark Bellhorn was a ballplayer well ahead of his time. That’s why Bellhorn worked so well in the Red Sox system, because Theo Epstein knew he was ahead of his time. A lot of teams would kill to rent out the 2002 or 2004 versions of Bellhorn in 2016.

Theo saw what Bellhorn did with everyday playing time in 2002, saw the on-base percentage, saw how his high strikeout totals led to few double plays, and thus viewed him as an asset. The Cubs front office all the way down to their manager didn’t think like that. And if you look at his batting average, hit totals, strikeout totals and home run totals, it paints an unflattering picture. .

But Mark Bellhorn was a lot more than that to the 2002 Cubs, and could have been more than that to the Cubs in 2003. Had the Cubs still acquired Aramis Ramirez and used Bellhorn as a platoon infielder against lefties in 2003, their depth would have been absurd. But playing for a manager who time and time again has totally devalued on-base percentage (a number Bellhorn inflated best) and has shown extreme aversion to sabermetrics of any kind, he was a bad fit. Baker was never going to adjust. It’s not his nature.

The happy ending here is that Bellhorn found a home, and became a hero in a system that knew how to use him. And for the Cubs, Bellhorn’s trade did indirectly result in them getting a franchise third baseman for nine years.

Still, it’s another “what if” of many from that era of Cubs baseball, but because of his status as a “one-hit wonder” in the Cubs lexicon, his 2002 season has been easily forgotten. Which is tragic, because he could have built a fine career on the North Side had he just been given a chance.

2 Responses

  1. Michael Anthony Kamboures

    Nice article. Brings back both good and bad memories. Bellhorn was one of my favorite infielders.

    Reply
  2. Sonny Wright

    i always thought Bellhorn was a good player. as for 2003 i still blame Baker for CubsLOSS. After the Alou no catch, Baker should have went out and calmed Prior. But he didn’t and Prior fell apart.

    Reply

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