In a move unthinkable just two seasons ago, the Dodgers decided not to enroll outfielder Cody Bellinger before Friday’s deadline. The move makes Bellinger, the 2019 National League Most Valuable Player, a free agent for the first time in his career.
“Obviously it’s been a unique path for Cody as he’s struggled through injuries and worked diligently over the years to get back to his All-Star caliber performance,” said Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. “However, it didn’t turn out as well as we hoped or expected, which is why we had to make the difficult decision not to enter.”
Bellinger would earn more than $20 million during his final season and be eligible for salary arbitration. Given Bellinger’s under-performance at the plate in each of the past two seasons, that was a figure the Dodgers weren’t comfortable paying, even though they believe Bellinger can recover next season.
The move doesn’t necessarily mean the end of Bellinger’s time in Los Angeles. The Dodgers will try to bring him back at a lower price, but it will be a tough task. The midfielder is expected to have many suitors. Friedman said the Dodgers investigated the Bellinger trade before the no-tender deadline, but talks never materialized.
Now that Bellinger is a free agent and can sign for less money, the Rays, Cardinals, Blue Jays, Cubs and Marlins are among a long list of teams that will be interested in his services.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say this is the end of the Cody and the Dodgers chapter,” Friedman said. “We still strongly believe in Cody’s talent and competitive makeup, and we are interested in a reunion and will continue discussions with Cody and his group. And he may discuss this for his part.”
Bellinger’s expected large pool of suitors will be because of the possibility of him tapping into what once made him one of MLB’s top players. Bellinger hit 39 home runs in 2017 and took home the NL Rookie of the Year Award. In ’19, he hit 47 home runs and beat Christian Yelich for his first MVP Award.
That kind of production became what the Dodgers and Bellinger expected, but it became impossible to recreate. In ’20, Bellinger dislocated his non-throwing shoulder when he celebrated a homer in Game 7 of the NLCS. He underwent off-season surgery that sidelined him for a few weeks in Spring Training.
During the first week of the ’21 season, Bellinger broke his left fibula during a freak play against the A’s. Dealing with injuries, Bellinger was never able to get going at the plate. He finished the year with 10 homers and a .542 OPS, one of the worst in the Majors among qualifying hitters.
Bellinger came into Spring Training this year excited about his extra strength. But the results never came and he posted a .654 OPS in 144 games. That lack of production led the Dodgers to bench Bellinger in Game 4 of the NLDS against the Padres, even with right-hander Joe Musgrove on the mound.
“I thought last off-season, I had a lot of confidence [about a bounce-back season], and it didn’t pan out in ’22,” Friedman said of Bellinger. “There are very few acquaintances in what we do. … We still really believe in Cody’s talent and feel like he’s as committed as ever to figuring it out.
“That, coupled with the talent we have in our weight room, on our coaching staff, we feel like we can work it out with him. But again I felt that way coming into ’22. I feel that way again heading into ’23.
Bellinger is 27 and still plays elite defense in midfield. The argument for offering him a contract revolved around giving him one last chance to sort things out in Los Angeles. But with the Dodgers having to upgrade other positions, primarily the starting pitching staff, his price tag became too high at this point in the offseason.
With Bellinger off the roster, the Dodgers have scheduled Trayce Thompson and Chris Taylor to play center field. James Outman is also an option. The Dodgers will also be eyeing free-agent outfielders such as Kevin Kiermaier, who was drafted by the Rays in 2010 by Friedman.
Los Angeles has cut nearly $100 million from payroll since the start of free agency, but will likely come into the ’23 season with a lower payroll than the previous two years.
The Dodgers also did not offer infielder Luke Williams, who they claimed waivers from the Marlins last week, and infielder Edwin Ríos, who hit seven home runs in 27 games with the Dodgers last season.