Prior to the start of the 2021 season, Dodgers’ outfielder/first baseman Cody Bellinger was considered one of the best baseball players on planet Earth. In his three full seasons with LA prior to 2021, he’d won NL Rookie of the Year, an NL MVP, and had smashed 111 home runs. 2020 wasn’t the kindest season to Bellinger, but he did still record a 112 OPS-plus, and it was a 60-game season, you know? Nothing felt right that year. We just pushed any poor play from that season to the side and hoped it would subside when normal baseball picked back up in 2021. However, things only got worse from there.
In 239 regular season games since then, Bellinger has .193/.256/.355, good for a .611 OPS or 64 OPS-plus. He’s remained relevant on the Dodgers due to his solid defense, but his days of offensive prowess are seemingly far behind him. That’s why it came as no surprise when Los Angeles non-tendered its once beloved child, making Bellinger a free agent for the first time in his career.
Bellinger was approaching his final year of arbitration in 2023 and was set to make between $18 and $20 million. That price for someone who’s played at below-replacement-level at the plate over the last two seasons is obviously a very hefty price, one the Dodgers could afford to pay — lord knows they have enough money to make a move like that and still win 100 games next season — but not worth it in their eyes.
That said, I find it hard to believe L.A. will let him walk away quietly. Despite having three of their top-five prospects and four of their top-ten capable of playing the outfield, plus James Outman, the Dodgers have hung on to Bellinger tightly, playing him in 144 games in 2022 despite his subpar bat. Their only suitable center field replacements at the moment are utility man Chris Taylor, Trayce Thompson, and maybe Mookie Betts, none of whom play center field at the level Bellinger does. There are also free agents like Brandon Nimmo and Kevin Kiermaier, but Nimmo is expensive and not a great defender. In contrast, Kiermaier is just Bellinger with a slightly better average, less power, and more base-stealing prowess. The Dodgers value Bellinger’s defense immensely, and based on the initial reaction we’ve seen from other teams, fanbases, and executives, there’s still belief that Belli could turn his hitting career around, hokey pokey-style.
Even though Los Angeles doesn’t want to pay Bellinger the money he was set to earn, the Dodgers could still outbid any team in the market for him. I doubt anyone would be willing to pay that price given Bellinger’s production, or lack thereof, over the last two seasons, so he could return to Chavez Ravine.
The Dodgers are on track to put in a lot of work this offseason, primarily with their starting rotation and bullpen — which is still looking for a legitimate closing option should Blake Treinen not return to his former glory next year. With that in mind, Bellinger’s arbitration price was too hefty a price to bear. Will some team overpay in the hopes of capturing Bellinger’s 2019 lightning in a bottle? Maybe, but if not, the Dodgers should be the most likely candidate to sign the left-handed bat. He’s already well-respected in the clubhouse and fills a dire need defensively.