Cody Bellinger is just 27 years old and ostensibly entering his athletic prime. Yet suddenly, he’s no longer a Los Angeles Dodger, just three years after he was the National League’s Most Valuable Player.
In a move that would have been a stunner just a couple years ago yet still rates as a moderate surprise, the Dodgers declined to offer Bellinger a contract for 2023 on Friday, cutting ties with the 2019 NL MVP one year before he was eligible to become a free agent.
The move will certainly save the Dodgers money: Bellinger was due a salary somewhere between $17 million and $19 million this season, and the club can use the cost savings to compete at the top of the free agent market, try to retain All-Star shortstop Trea Turner or perhaps reset their luxury tax ceiling.
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But that lofty salary due Bellinger was built on three largely excellent seasons at the start of his career, which included a 39-homer, Rookie of the Year debut in 2017 and a 47-homer MVP effort in 2019, when Bellinger was just in his age-23 season.
Yet instead of enduring greatness, Bellinger’s career took a wrong turn at what should have been its apex: He dislocated his shoulder celebrating his go-ahead home run in Game 7 of the 2020 National League Championship Series.
The Dodgers would go on to win the World Series within the pandemic-driven bubble, but Bellinger has not been the same since.
He underwent shoulder surgery in November 2020, but his comeback woes were exacerbated when he suffered a hairline fracture in his left fibula early in the 2021 season. With both his upper and lower halves misfiring, Bellinger batted .165 and his OPS sank to a career-worst .542, with just 10 home runs in 315 at-bats.
Bellinger was only nominally better this past season, batting .210 with a .654 OPS and 150 strikeouts in 504 at-bats. Still, Bellinger is one of the game’s most athletic players and, through all his offensive woes, provided the Dodgers elite defense in center field.
That, combined with the hope he’d find his old stroke, made the prospect of bringing him back for one more season viable. But the writing was already on the wall: Bellinger did not start in two of the Dodgers’ four NL Division Series games against San Diego and in another, backup catcher Austin Barnes pinch hit for him in the late innings.
So the Dodgers, through baseball’s arbitration system, were faced with a Friday deadline to tender him a contract or render him a free agent.
Though the club could attempt to re-sign Bellinger at a lower salary, his expected departure will for now leave center field to Trayce Thompson and Chris Taylor, with significant wiggle room to pursue an option via free agency and trade.