In a move that was unthinkable just two seasons ago, the Dodgers decided to non-tender 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.
Bellinger was scheduled to make around $18 million to $20 million during his last season of arbitration. Given Bellinger’s subpar production at the plate in each of the last two seasons, that was a figure the Dodgers didn’t feel comfortable paying for Bellinger, which is what led them to make the difficult decision.
The move doesn’t necessarily end Bellinger’s time in Los Angeles. The Dodgers will attempt to bring Bellinger back at a lower price, according to a source, but that will be a tough task as the center fielder’s market is expected to have plenty of suitors.
Bellinger’s expected large pool of suitors will be because of the possibility he taps into what once made him one of the top players in the league. Bellinger hit 39 homers in 2017 and took home the NL Rookie of the Year Award. In ’19, he hit 47 homers and edged out Christian Yelich for his first MVP Award.
That type of production became what the Dodgers and Bellinger expected, but it became impossible to recreate. In ’20, Bellinger dislocated his non-throwing shoulder as he celebrated a homer in Game 7 of the NLCS. He underwent offseason surgery, which sidelined him for a few weeks in Spring Training.
During the first week of the ’21 season, Bellinger fractured his left fibula during a freak play against the A’s. As he dealt with injuries, Bellinger was never able to get going at the plate, ending the year with 10 homers and a .542 OPS, one of the worst in the Majors among qualifying hitters.
Entering the ’22 season, the Dodgers and Bellinger were optimistic of a bounceback season. Bellinger came into Spring Training excited about his increased strength. But the results never came and he posted a .654 OPS in 144 games in ’22. That lack of production ultimately led the Dodgers to bench Bellinger in Game 4 of the NLDS against the Padres, even with right-hander Joe Musgrove on the mound.
Bellinger will be 27 next season and still plays elite defense in center field. The argument to tender him a contract revolved around giving him one last chance to figure things out in Los Angeles. But with the Dodgers needing to upgrade other positions on the roster, primarily the starting pitching staff, his price tag became too heavy at this point in the offseason.
With Bellinger off the roster, the Dodgers have Trayce Thompson and Chris Taylor slated to play center field. Mookie Betts can also slide over from time to time. They’ll also be keeping tabs on free-agent outfielders such as Kevin Kiermaier.