If this is End, Cody Bellinger Goes Out a Dodger Legend
The club's centerfielder hit just .203 over the last three seasons, but he did deliver one world championship and a lifetime full of gifs
On Friday night, the Dodgers announced they declined to extend Cody Bellinger a contract for the 2023 season, making him a free agent. Because Bellinger won both the Rookie of the Year and the NL MVP award while on his rookie contract with the Dodgers, if the club wanted to keep him, they would have had to pay him an estimated $18 million next season. Despite Bellinger’s early-career success and his status as a certified fan fave, Los Angeles decided that $18 million was too much for a guy whose offensive production has fallen so low these past three seasons that I’ve been on thesaurus.com for 20 minutes trying to conjure up a more creative word for “basement.”
Watching the hole in Bellinger’s swing grow from the size of a billiard ball to the size of a bowling ball since he won the 2019 NL MVP award was apparently as confounding for Andrew Friedman as it was for the rest of us: This is the first time ever that a guy who won both the Rookie of the Year and MVP awards has been non-tendered— but that’s not much of a surprise because winning both awards is relatively rare. Only 27 players in MLB history have done it and the list includes current Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson and Cal Ripken Jr., as well as future Cooperstown locks Mike Trout and Albert Pujols.
I should note here, before going any further, that Bellinger dislocated his right shoulder celebrating hitting the go-ahead home run in Game 7 of the pennant-clinching NLCS in 2020, and he has not been the same hitter since.
By all accounts, his fall from the pinnacle of the sport has nothing to do with his lack of effort or some kind of character flaw. He arrived early to extra hitting practice throughout the 2022 season, remained an excellent defender in centerfield despite his woes in the batter’s box, and never said or did anything that would warrant getting cut.
Because of his speed, his defense and the hope that he could re-capture his 2017-2019 form, the Dodgers really did struggle over whether to give him the money required to keep him on the team. It’s possible, though unlikely, that Friedman could figure out a way to bring Bellinger back for less money, but the Dodgers will now have to negotiate against 29 other potential suitors who may view Bellinger as a prime fixer-upper. He is still only 27 years old, and his last two off-seasons were wrecked by COVID-19, major shoulder surgery and the lockout.
The Dodgers hitting coaches have tried for two years to fix Bellinger’s swing, and it’s unquestionable that he would benefit from a full off-season of working with them with a healthy shoulder. But apparently Friedman wasn’t convinced that the next three months of training could produce a guy worthy of $18 million, even though the Dodgers will need a centerfielder to replace him and the free-agent market for that position looks thin.
The Dodgers have shed $100 million from their books since the end of the season, and could make a run at Aaron Judge to replace Bellinger, but I imagine that any team that signs Judge to a longterm deal would look to move him off center as soon as possible because that position tends to destroy the legs (and by extension, the hitting prowess) of even the all-time greats. If Opening Day were tomorrow, the club would use some combination of Chris Taylor, Trayce Thompson and rookie James Outman in center. (The Dodgers are nowhere near close to being done with off-season moves, however. They also need a shortstop and some starting pitchers).
Bellinger will undoubtedly be remembered by Dodger fans for his confounding stint on the team, and for what could have been. But I also think he’ll be looked back on fondly for the unbridled joy he brought Los Angeles sports fans in big moments, so let’s relive the good times today.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to The Long Game to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.