In a move that was unthinkable just two seasons ago, the Dodgers decided to hire non-tender outfielder Cody Bellinger before the deadline Friday. 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 battled through injuries and worked diligently over the past few years to return to his All-Star-caliber performance,” said Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. “However, it hasn’t played out as well as we would’ve hoped or expected, and therefore we had to make a difficult decision of non-tendering.”
Bellinger was scheduled to make upwards of $20 million during his last season eligible for salary 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, even if they believed Bellinger could bounce back next season.
The move doesn’t necessarily end Bellinger’s time in Los Angeles. The Dodgers will attempt to bring him back at a lower price, but that will be a tough task. The center fielder is expected to have plenty of suitors. Friedman said the Dodgers explored trading Bellinger before the non-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 closing of the chapter of Cody and the Dodgers,” Friedman said. “We still very much believe in the talent of Cody and his competitive makeup, and we have interest in a reunion and will continue talks with Cody and his group. And he gets to discuss this on his end.”
Bellinger’s expected large pool of suitors will be because of the possibility he taps into what once made him one of MLB’s top players. Bellinger hit 39 homers in 2017 and took home the NL Rookie of the Year Award. In ’19, he hit 47 homers and edged 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. He ended 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 added 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 offseason, I was very confident [about a bounce-back season], and it didn’t prove out in ’22,” Friedman said of Bellinger. “There are very few known in what we do. … We still really believe in the talent of Cody and feel like he is as committed as ever to figure it out.
That, coupled with the talent we have in our weight room, on our coaching staff, we feel like we, collectively with him, could figure it out. 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 the 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, 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. James Outman is also an option. The Dodgers also will be keeping tabs on free-agent outfielders such as Kevin Kiermaier, who was drafted by the Rays in 2010 by Friedman.
Los Angeles has cleared nearly $100 million off the payroll since the start of the free agency, but will likely come into the ’23 season with a lower payroll than in the previous two years.
The Dodgers also non-tendered infielder Luke Williams, whom they claimed off waivers from the Marlins last week, and infielder Edwin Ríos, who hit seven homers in 27 games with the Dodgers last season.