Dodgers v Cody Bellinger

The Dodgers will not offer a contract Cody Bellinger for his final year of eligibility for arbitration, reports Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic (Twitter link). MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz had projected the 2019 NL MVP at a salary of about $18.1 million. Bellinger will be a free agent once the team officially announces the decision.

It’s not a surprising move at this point, but no one could have foreseen it when Bellinger collected his MVP trophy three years ago. He scored 47 home runs that season and posted an overall .305/.406/.629 line over 661 at bats. The left-handed hitter seemed to have cemented himself as one of the sport’s preeminent sluggers, and he had a career high .278/.368/.559 in over 1,800 at bats heading into 2020. At 24, Bellinger seemed a budding superstar.

Unfortunately, things have gone south in recent seasons. He stumbled a bit during the abbreviated 2020 campaign, putting up a .239/.333/.455 line in 56 games. That was still an above-average production, but a notable step down from the numbers of his first few seasons. A rotten .245 batting average on balls in play seemed to be a major contributor to that, and one could certainly point to the anomalous conditions that year in anticipating a bounceback.

It didn’t go that way, apparently in part because of an ill-advised late-season party. Bellinger dislocated his right shoulder celebrating a crucial home run in Game 7 of the 2020 NLCS. While playing the postseason, he underwent surgery in mid-November. Bellinger was healthy enough to open the 2021 campaign on the roster, but he was battling a series of unrelated leg and rib issues. In between, his slash dropped to a measly .165/.240/.302 in 95 games.

LA brought him back last winter, avoiding arbitration over a $17 million salary. However, their hoped-for bounceback season didn’t really materialize. Bellinger’s 2022 numbers were improved from the previous year, but nowhere near those of previous seasons. In 550 trips to the plate, he racked up a .210/.265/.389 mark. That brings him to exactly 900 at bats in the past two years, hitting .193/.256/.355. His on-base percentage is the lowest of 151 batters with more than 900 trips to the saucer, while his batting average is only that of Joey Gallo. He is sixth from bottom in slugging.

Bellinger’s batting stats and power output have taken a back seat, which could indicate that he never quite regained the explosiveness in his swing after shoulder surgery. Still, he’s also seeing a marked increase in strikeouts, hitting 27.1% of the time after lowering his strikeout percentage to below 18% in 2019-20. His walk percentage dropped to a below-average 7.7%, and manager Dave Roberts has continued to drop him further down the batting order.

With two full seasons of massive offensive combat under his belt, the Dodgers have opted to move on rather than pay the two-time All-Star close to $18 million. That always seemed to be more than even the most expensive franchise would be willing to pay, and it goes without saying that no other club was prepared to offer that kind of salary. The Dodgers have presumably spent the past few weeks gauging the trade market for Bellinger, and that he will be let go if he doesn’t return indicates there wasn’t much interest in that award.

That said, there is no doubt that he will be of interest to teams as a bounceback target at a lower cost. To Bellinger’s credit, his offensive struggles have not affected his work in the field. He is an elite runner who moved to center field full-time after emerging as a first baseman and corner outfielder. Defensive Runs Saved has rated him about average midfielder for the past two years, but Ultimate Zone Rating and Statcast have rated him above average. Statcast was highly optimistic, rating him as seven runs above average in just under 1900 innings of midfield work since the start of the 2021 campaign.

Slightly above-average centerfield defense and plus baserunning give Bellinger a decent floor even when he’s not hitting well, though he’s clearly a lot more of an up game than a traditional glove-only outfielder. He will be on the offensive looking for a complete reset, but heading into his 27-year campaign he could certainly rediscover some of his old form at the plate.

Unlisted players are not subject to waivers, so Bellinger will be a free agent. He and his representatives at the Boras Corporation will have a chance to gauge interest from other teams, and they will take advantage of a lack of supply in midfield. Excepted Aaron Judgeformer Met Brandon Nimmo is the best midfielder available in a free agency. Bellinger becomes arguably the second best option in a class that also includes Kevin Kiermaier, Adam Duvall and Jackie Bradley Jr.

The Mets, Blue Jays, Marlins, Rangers, Rays, Rockies, Astros, Padres and Giants (a team led by former LA executive Farhan Zaidi) could all look outside for center help. They are speculative passes for Bellinger, and the Dodgers themselves could stay in touch about a reunion at a lower price.

Los Angeles could give Mookie Betts, Chris Taylor or Trayce Thompson increased midfield run, but it goes without saying that they are also scouring the market for help outside the organization. Bob Nightengale of USA Today reports (on Twitter) they view Kiermaier as part of that quest.

Subtracting Bellinger’s arbitration forecast leaves LA with approximately $152 million in projected payrolls for 2023, per Roster Resource, pending additional arbitration decisions. They are estimated to have about $169 million in luxury tax liabilities, well beyond next year’s $233 million base tax threshold. That doesn’t include a salary of about $20 million for Clayton Kershaw, who is reportedly nearing a deal to re-sign. Still, the Dodgers should have plenty of financial breathing room to tackle shortstop, center field, third base and depth of rotation that seem like the team’s biggest question marks early in the offseason.

Image courtesy of USA Today Sports.

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