The Dodgers had until 5 p.m. Friday to decide whether to offer Cody Bellinger, the 2019 National League MVP, a contract through the 2023 season.
It shouldn’t have been a big decision. Three years ago this week, Bellinger won that MVP award, cementing his status as a superstar. He is 27 years old. This is the physical heyday of his career. The decision to leave him was supposed to be a formality.
But Bellinger has fallen so far from that peak over the past three seasons that the Dodgers weren’t sure if he was worth what he was set to earn through arbitration in 2023.
Ultimately, the Dodgers decided Bellinger was too far gone and did not sign him for next season, making him a free agent, according to a person with knowledge of the situation who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
According to MLB Trade Rumors, Bellinger, who made $17 million in 2022, will receive an $18 million salary for 2023 through arbitration. It’s rare for players to take a pay cut through the arbitration process, even after objectively bad seasons.
The Dodgers can still sign Bellinger this offseason, but they will now have to battle 29 other clubs in free agency.
Before Friday’s deadline, teams had two other options for Bellinger: trade him or sign him to a discounted contract to avoid arbitration.
Teams find Bellinger’s potential attractive. They visualize the elite talent they could have two years after major shoulder surgery. But they weren’t willing to give up much in a trade to pay Bellinger $18 million next season when they could just wait to sign him to a free-agent contract.
A contract before the deadline was always unlikely; Bellinger should have several suitors vying for his services as a free agent.
Center field was one of the thinnest positions in the majors in 2022. Remove Aaron Judge, who played center field for the New York Yankees only as needed and will likely return to right field next season, and Brandon Nimmo’s 5.4 fWAR is the highest at the position. This ranked 20th overall. Seattle Mariners rookie Julio Rodriguez was second among center fielders.
Nimmo, who has never made an All-Star game, is expected to receive a contract north of $100 million as a free agent this winter. Rodriguez was named the AL Rookie of the Year this week. Good everyday center fielders are a valuable commodity, and several teams are expected to address the position this offseason.
The Dodgers’ other in-house options for center fielder include Trace Thompson, Chris Taylor and James Outman.
Thompson was a surprise addition after the Dodgers acquired him from the Detroit Tigers for cash in June, but he’s 31 years old and hasn’t appeared in more than 80 games in a major league season. Taylor played just 10 games in center field and his defense regressed last season, batting .221 with 160 strikeouts in 454 plate appearances. Outman’s major league career consists of four games.
Bellinger, despite his recent offensive struggles, has remained a fan favorite in Los Angeles, provided top-level defense and has the potential to rebound in the box. Finding a suitable replacement will not be as easy as it seems at first glance.
Bellinger has been plagued by injuries since his MVP season — most notably an upper lip problem in his right shoulder that required major surgery in November 2020 — but his offensive decline remains stark nonetheless. Three years ago, the question was whether the Dodgers could extend Bellinger’s long-term contract before he tested free agency.
He is already a two-time All-Star with Rookie of the Year honors on his resume. He batted .305 with 47 home runs and a 1.035 on-base percentage plus slugging to beat Christian Yelich as MVP. Bellinger led the NL in bWAR and fWAR. For his work in right field, he received a silver batting award and a gold glove.
The Dodgers thought they had a cornerstone for a young franchise. Bellinger then became one of the worst hitters in Major League Baseball over the next three seasons.
His .203 batting average was the third-worst in the majors during that span. His .648 OPS was sixth from the bottom. His 78 wRC+ was the fourth lowest among players with at least 1,000 plate appearances.
His most successful season in three was the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign, when he batted .239 with 12 home runs and a .789 OPS in 56 games. The numbers show a significant drop off, but he was one of several stars in the majors to go down during this amazing season. Meanwhile, his midfield defense was excellent.
In October of that year, Bellinger hit three home runs with a .911 OPS in 12 National League Championship games. His third home run gave the Dodgers a one-run lead in Game 7 of the NLCS against the Atlanta Braves, capping a seventh-inning comeback. It was a season-changing swing. Emotions ran high, so much so that Bellinger and Quique Hernandez smashed their forearms so hard that Bellinger dislocated his right shoulder.
Bellinger, immediately in obvious pain, stayed in the game and didn’t miss a run during the World Series. The Dodgers beat the Tampa Rays in six games to win the championship, despite Bellinger — who was designated as the team’s starting pitcher in Game 4 — going three of 22 in the series. He underwent arthroscopic lip surgery the following month and returned for the start of the 2021 season, but his problems only worsened.
Bellinger went on the disabled list three times in 2021, playing in just 95 games during the regular season. He batted .165 with a .542 OPS, terrible numbers by any standards.
And yet he was one of the Dodgers’ best hitters in the postseason, batting .353 with a .906 OPS in 12 games. Bellinger hit an RBI single in Game 5 of the National League Division Series against the San Francisco Giants and a game-tying three-run home run against the Braves in Game 3 of the NLCS. He became a star again. He never was in 2022.
Instead, Bellinger batted .219 with 150 strikeouts and a .654 OPS in 144 games. The Dodgers gave him a chance to turn things around by sticking with him as their regular center fielder until September, when they began pitting him against left-handed pitchers.
Then, out of the blue, the team decided to bench him against the right-handed starter who was in danger of being eliminated in Game 4 of the NLDS against the San Diego Padres. Bellinger flew out in dramatic fashion in the eighth inning of the Dodgers’ final loss.
A few days later, Bellinger was back at the Dodgers’ spring training in Arizona, three times a week. But as of Friday night, there’s a good chance that pinch-hit at-bat last month was his last as a Dodger, an unfathomable end to a tenure that reached heady heights just three years ago.