The Dodgers had until 5 p.m. Friday to decide whether to tender Cody Bellinger, the 2019 National League MVP, a contract for the 2023 season.
It shouldn’t have been much of a decision. Bellinger won that MVP award, solidifying his standing as a superstar, three years ago this week. He’s 27 years old. This is the physical prime of his career. Choosing to keep him should’ve been a formality.
But Bellinger has strayed so far from that peak over the last three seasons that the Dodgers weren’t sure if he was worth paying what he was expected to earn through arbitration in 2023.
In the end, the Dodgers decided Bellinger strayed too far off and didn’t tender him a contract 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.
Bellinger, who made $17 million in 2022, was projected to receive an $18-million salary for 2023 through arbitration, according to MLB Trade Rumors. Rarely do players receive a pay cut through the arbitration process. The Dodgers could still sign Bellinger this offseason, but they’ll have to bid against the 29 other clubs on the free-agent market.
The Dodgers had two other options for Bellinger before Friday’s deadline: trading him or signing him to a contract at a reduced price to avoid arbitration.
Center field is a position many teams are looking to upgrade. Some viewed Bellinger’s potential as enticing. They visualized an elite talent they could get right. But teams weren’t willing to give up much to pay Bellinger $18 million next season.
Center field was one of the thinnest positions in the majors in 2022. Remove Aaron Judge — who only played center field for the New York Yankees out of necessity and likely will return to right field next season — and Brandon Nimmo’s 5.4 fWAR was the highest at the position. That ranked 20th overall. Seattle Mariners rookie Julio Rodríguez was second among center fielders.
Nimmo, who has never been an All-Star, is expected to receive a contract north of $100 million as a free agent this winter. Rodríguez was named AL rookie of the year this week. Good everyday center fielders are valued commodities.
The Dodgers’ other in-house options for center fielder include Trayce Thompson, Chris Taylor and James Outman.
Thompson was a surprise contributor after the Dodgers acquired him from the Detroit Tigers for cash in June, but he’s 31 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 while batting .221 with 160 strikeouts in 454 plate appearances. Outman’s major league career consists of four games.
Bellinger, despite his recent offensive troubles, remained a fan favorite in Los Angeles, provided top-tier defense and has the potential to rebound in the batter’s box. Finding a suitable replacement won’t be as easy as it initially appears.
Bellinger has dealt with injuries since his MVP season — notably a labrum issue in his right shoulder that required major surgery in November 2020 — but his offensive decline nonetheless remains jarring. Three years ago, the question would’ve been if the Dodgers could lock up Bellinger with a long-term contract extension before he tested free agency.
He was already a two-time All-Star with a rookie of the year award on his résumé. He batted .305 with 47 home runs and a 1.035 on-base-plus-slugging percentage to beat Christian Yelich for MVP. Bellinger led the NL in bWAR and fWAR. He earned a Silver Slugger and a Gold Glove for his work in right field.
The Dodgers thought they had a young franchise cornerstone to build around. Then Bellinger became one of the worst hitters in Major League Baseball over the next three seasons.
His .203 batting average was tied for third worst in the majors during that span. His .648 OPS was sixth from the bottom. His 78 wRC+ was the fourth-lowest mark among players with at least 1,000 plate appearances.
His most productive season of the three was the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign when he batted .239 with 12 home runs and a .789 OPS in 56 games. The numbers represented a significant drop-off, but he was one of several stars across the majors who slumped during the strange season. Meanwhile, his defense in center field was excellent.
That October, Bellinger clubbed three home runs with a .911 OPS in 12 games through the National League Championship Series. His third home run gave the Dodgers a one-run lead in Game 7 of the NLCS against the Atlanta Braves, completing a comeback in the seventh inning. It was a season-changing swing. Emotions ran high, so high that Bellinger and Kiké Hernández smashed forearms so hard that Bellinger dislocated his right shoulder.
Bellinger, in obvious pain immediately, stayed in the game and didn’t miss any time during the World Series. The Dodgers beat the Tampa Rays in six games to win the championship despite Bellinger — who was the team’s designated hitter in Game 4 — going three for 22 in the series. He underwent arthroscopic labrum surgery the next month and returned for the start of the 2021 season, but his struggles only worsened.
Bellinger landed on the injured list three times in 2021, playing in just 95 games during the regular season. He batted .165 with a .542 OPS, abysmal numbers by any standard.
And yet he was one of the Dodgers’ best hitters in the postseason, batting .353 with a .906 OPS in 12 games. Bellinger had the go-ahead RBI single in Game 5 of the National League Division 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 was never one in 2022.
Instead, Bellinger batted .219 with 150 strikeouts and a .654 OPS in 144 games. The Dodgers gave him chances to turn things around, sticking by him as their everyday center fielder until September when they started benching him against left-handed pitchers.
Then, in a surprise, the team chose to bench him against a right-handed starter facing elimination in Game 4 of the NLDS against the San Diego Padres. Bellinger flied out in a pinch-hit appearance in the eighth inning of the Dodgers’ season-ending loss.
A few days later, Bellinger was back working out at the Dodgers’ spring training facility in Arizona three times a week. But, as of Friday evening, there’s a good chance that pinch-hit at-bat last month was his final one as a Dodger, an unfathomable conclusion to a tenure that reached rarefied heights just three years ago.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.