The last two seasons the Los Angeles Dodgers have watched their star center fielder and former MVP slipped into a puzzling cycle of injuries, inconsistency and puzzling production.
The Dodgers still believe in Cody Bellinger’s ability. They’re still hopeful the 27-year-old slugger can rediscover his All-Star-caliber, Silver-Slugger-winning, superstar-affirming form of his old self.
By Friday, the Dodgers will have to decide whether to tender Bellinger a contract for the 2023 season, or release him after a couple of stunningly subpar seasons that have derailed his once-burgeoning career. They have to decide, if they feel comfortable paying Bellinger a salary of likely more than $18 million in 2023.
Bellinger is entering his last year of arbitration under team control, and because the arbitration process virtually always awards raises to players one year after the next, Bellinger has been one of the Dodgers’ highest earners ever since making a then-record $11.5 million in his first arbitration-eligible season in 2020, when he was coming off his 2019 MVP performance.
Bellinger’s play has tailed off since winning the MVP award. His stats during that season were, 47 home runs, 115 RBIs and a .305 batting average. Since then, he has batted .195 with a total of 41 home runs and a .642 on-base-plus-slugging percentage the last three seasons, and has produced at a well-below-league-average clip the last two years.
The Dodgers have to decide whether Bellinger can provide power in the middle of the lineup and strong defense in the middle of the outfield, against the fear he will suffer more extended slumps at the plate, problems with strikeouts and swing mechanics, and eat up a not-insignificant portion of their payroll as they plan for the rest of the offseason.
In his first three years, Bellinger averaged 40 home runs per season, won a rookie-of-the-year award and MVP, and seemed destined to be the face of the Dodgers future.
After regressing in 2020, Bellinger suffered a shoulder injury during a playoff celebration with then-teammate Kiké Hernandez that required surgery. During the 2021 season, he suffered left leg and rib fractures that sidelined him for much of the year and impacted his performance.
Last year, Bellinger played in 144 games, with 19 home runs, 68 RBIs and a batting average of .210. He still struggled to find a consistent swing at the plate, was benched in Game 4 of the National League Division Series and entered the offseason with his future uncertain.
Bellinger’s work ethic and drive also continue to receive positive reviews. He was a frequent participant in early batting practice this year, going through countless repetitons in front of hitting coaches and video cameras. His highly touted defense has remained a strength, too, seemingly unaffected by his problems at the plate.
If the Dodgers don’t tender Bellinger a contract on Friday, they could still try and re-sign him at a lesser salary. But doing so could also very well mark the end of Bellinger’s time with the team, as he’d likely draw plenty of interest from other suitors seeking to snag a former MVP on a more manageable one-year salary.
Los Angeles Dodgers OF Cody Bellinger. Photo courtsey of The Athletic