In a move unthinkable two seasons ago, the Dodgers chose non-tender outfielder Cody Bellinger before Friday’s deadline. The move makes Bellinger, the 2019 National League MVP, a free agent for the first time in his career.
“Obviously, it’s been a unique path for Cody as he’s battled through injuries and has worked diligently over the past several years to return to his All-Star level performance,” said Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations. “However, it hasn’t turned out as well as we had hoped or expected and as a result we had to make the difficult decision not to bid.”
Bellinger was expected to earn more than $20 million in his final season to be eligible for a salary arbitration. Given Bellinger’s underperforming on the plate each of the past two seasons, the Dodgers didn’t feel comfortable paying that number, even if they believe Bellinger can bounce back next season.
The move doesn’t necessarily end Bellinger’s time in Los Angeles. The Dodgers will try to bring him back at a lower price, but that will be a difficult task. The midfielder is expected to have many applicants. Friedman said the Dodgers scouted a trade with Bellinger before the no-tender period ended, but the 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 who will be interested in his services.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say that this is the conclusion of the Cody and the Dodgers chapter,” Friedman said. “We still believe very much in Cody’s talent and his competitive lineup and we are interested in a reunion and will continue discussions with Cody and his group. And he gets to discuss that on his side.”
Bellinger’s anticipated large pool of applicants will come from the opportunity for him to draw on 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 1919, he hit 47 homers and edged out Christian Yelich for his first MVP award.
This type of production became what the Dodgers and Bellinger expected, but became impossible to replicate. In 1920, Bellinger dislocated his non-throwing shoulder while celebrating a homer in Game 7 of the NLCS. He underwent off-season surgery, which sidelined him for a few weeks in spring training.
In the first week of season 21, Bellinger broke his left fibula in a freak game against the A’s. Struggling with injuries, Bellinger never got on the plate. He finished the year with 10 home runs and a .542 OPS, one of the worst in the majors among qualifying hitters.
Bellinger came into spring training this year and was pleased with his added strength. But the results never came, and he posted a .654 OPS in 144 games. This 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 offseason I was very confident [about a bounce-back season], and it didn’t work in ’22,” Friedman said of Bellinger. “There are very few acquaintances in what we do. … We’re still very strong believers in Cody’s talent and feel like he’s as dedicated as ever to finding it.
“Combined with the talent we have in our weight room and on our coaching staff, we feel like we could figure it out together with him. But that’s how I felt again when I turned 22. I feel that way again going 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 figure things out in Los Angeles. But with the Dodgers needing to improve other positions, most notably the starting staff, his price tag was becoming too high at this point in the offseason.
With Bellinger no longer on the roster, the Dodgers have placed Trayce Thompson and Chris Taylor in midfield. James Outman is also an option. The Dodgers will also keep tabs on free-agent outfielders like Kevin Kiermaier, who was drafted by the Rays from Friedman in 2010.
Los Angeles has pulled nearly $100 million from the payroll since free agency began, but will likely enter season 23 with a lower payroll than the previous two years.
The Dodgers also have non-callout infielder Luke Williams, whom they reclaimed from the Marlins on waivers last week, and infielder Edwin Ríos, who hit seven home runs in 27 games with the Dodgers last season.