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Friday, June 21, 2024

Dodgers non-tender Cody Bellinger, making former MVP a free agent


The Los Angeles Dodgers have non-tendered former MVP Cody Bellinger, making the 27-year-old two-time All-Star a free agent. 

Bellinger was set to earn around $18 million in arbitration. The Dodgers can still bring him back, and president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman expressed interest in a return, but now they’ll have to compete with the rest of the league. 

Just getting to this point is a stunning development for the 2017 National League Rookie of the Year and 2019 NL MVP, whose last few years in Los Angeles have trended in the wrong direction. 

“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,” Friedman said Friday. “However, it hasn’t played out as we all would’ve hoped or expected, and therefore we had to make a difficult decision of non-tendering him.”

Four seasons ago at 23 years old, Bellinger launched 47 home runs with a 1.035 OPS. He earned his second All-Star nod and first career Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Awards in an MVP season. While his performance fluctuated at times early in his career, it never dipped below league average. He mashed at least 25 homers with an OPS+ of 120 or better in each of his first three years in the majors and appeared to be one of the preeminent young superstars in the game. 

Then came the 2020 season. 

Bellinger looked like himself early that spring, slashing .324/.343/.588 during Cactus League play, before the pandemic delayed the season. Upon the restart, he couldn’t replicate his usual form. He began swinging and chasing more often, and a constant tweaking of his mechanics hindered any rhythm, though he still posted a 112 OPS+ while offering above-average defense at first base and in the outfield. 

He also played a pivotal role in helping catapult the Dodgers to their first World Series championship in 32 years. 

Bellinger hit four home runs during the 2020 postseason, one of which was the decisive blast in the Dodgers’ National League Championship Series Game 7 comeback win against the Braves. After rounding the bases, Bellinger celebrated with his teammates. A forearm bash with Kiké Hernández was a little too aggressive, causing Bellinger’s right shoulder to dislocate. It was not the first time Bellinger experienced the sensation with his non-throwing shoulder, though the issue never caused him to miss significant time previously. He played in all 162 games in 2018, 156 games in 2019 and 56 of 60 games in 2020. 

After the latest shoulder issue, he elected to get arthroscopic surgery in November 2020. He was ahead of schedule in his recovery, but as he built back strength in his shoulder another setback loomed. Four games into the year, Bellinger was back on the shelf after suffering a hairline fracture in his leg. He later dealt with hamstring and rib injuries and finished the 2021 season with a .165/.240/.302 slash line in 95 games. 

“You kind of learn a little bit about yourself,” Bellinger previously said. “You really, truly know how hard this game is, to never take anything for granted.” 

His chase percentage climbed, his strikeout rate worsened and his mechanics were in flux. Bellinger’s .542 OPS was the third-lowest of all major leaguers with at least 300 plate appearances that season, but the Dodgers maintained their belief in the precocious slugger, and he rewarded them in the postseason. In an effort to make more contact and catch up to velocity, Bellinger widened his stance, lowered his hands, flattened his bat path and simplified his swing. 

“He was really just trying to put the bat on the ball,” hitting coach Brant Brown said last October. “That’s something we talk about all year.” 

If Bellinger could do that, ideally, his typical power would follow. 

A more compact swing helped Bellinger provide the game-winning hit to topple the division-winning Giants in Game 5 of the 2021 NL Division Series. In the next series, an NLCS rematch against the Braves, Bellinger gave the Dodgers a chance. With his team trailing 2-0 in the series, Bellinger caught up to a 96-mph fastball — something he hadn’t been able to do all year — and sent the offering from Luke Jackson out for a game-tying three-run home run in a 6-5 win. 

The Dodgers couldn’t mount another 3-1 series comeback against the Braves, but Bellinger’s standout postseason (.353/.436/.471) provided a promising launching point for him to potentially recapture his MVP form for the 2022 season. Friedman expected that to happen. 

But another unusual offseason followed, and Bellinger’s struggles persisted.

This time, the lockout prevented players from working out with teams. Upon his return, Bellinger said he planned to keep a similar stance and approach to the one that helped him succeed in the 2021 postseason. But those changes were made largely to adjust for an injury-riddled campaign and were not meant to be permanent. 

“I don’t think in baseball you ever have it figured out, you know what I mean?” Bellinger said. “It’s always a game of adjustments.”

Related: Trea Turner’s speed, hit tool distinguish him in rich free-agent shortstop class

Feeling healthier in 2022, the tinkering continued. He couldn’t get back on track. 

The Dodgers continued encouraging him to try to go the other way more often. The goal was to find a consistent routine and process, but there seemed to be a disconnect between how his swing looked, what felt comfortable to him and what made him succeed. 

“He’s his own person,” Dodgers hitting coach Robert Van Scoyoc said before the 2022 season. “If he comes up with a thought, he has the right to try that. It’s his swing, his career, and we’ve got to be there to help and support him, even if we don’t necessarily think that’s the right thing at that moment.” 

Added Brown: “He’s really trying to navigate on what his feels are. Sometimes, we all know hitters’ feels will deceive them.” 

Bellinger finished the 2022 season slashing .210/.265/.389 with 19 home runs while posting the lowest walk rate and highest strikeout rate and chase percentage of his career. Over the last three years, he is tied for the lowest wRC+ (78) among all major leaguers with at least 1,100 plate appearances.  

His teammates commended him for working through his issues without complaints or excuses. 

“I just think about the guy more than anything,” Clayton Kershaw said in April. “We all love Belli. We all see him grinding every day, good or bad, to try to figure it out. Coming off the shoulder surgery and all those things, that’s a challenge for anybody. He grinded through, didn’t say anything about it.”

There were glimpses of the player the Dodgers envisioned. He mashed two homers in a 10-2 win against the Padres on April 24, one of seven multi-hit games in his first 15 games of the 2022 season. But inconsistencies marred his performances, despite a clean bill of health. 

The low point came in Game 4 of the NLDS. With the Dodgers’ season on the brink, Bellinger, who made $17 million this year, was held out of the starting lineup in favor of Trayce Thompson against right-handed starter Joe Musgrove. 

“He was upset,” manager Dave Roberts said. “He wanted to be in there. He expected to be in there.”

The Dodgers’ season came to an end in a 5-3 defeat, leaving a murky future for the former MVP.

The Dodgers’ season came to an end in a 5-3 defeat, leaving a murky future for the former MVP, who was projected to make slightly over $18 million this year had the Dodgers tendered him a contract.  

“It’s difficult,” Roberts said before the final loss of the season. “There’s no exact science to it. I think I’ve shown that I’ve supported him. I’ve given him a lot of leash because he’s earned it, and also I believe in the player, the talent, the person.”

Eventually, the cost outweighed that belief, though the Dodgers haven’t ruled out a return for Bellinger at a lesser salary than the $18 million he was set to earn next year. If the Dodgers are to fill the position internally, Friedman mentioned Thompson, James Outman and Chris Taylor as potential options in center field. 

“I wouldn’t necessarily say that this is a 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.”

Rowan Kavner covers the Dodgers and NL West for FOX Sports. He previously was the Dodgers’ editor of digital and print publications. Follow him on Twitter at @RowanKavner.

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