The Los Angeles Dodgers did not tender Cody Bellinger a contract before Friday’s deadline, making the 27-year-old former MVP a free agent.
Bellinger was set to earn about $18 million in arbitration. While the Dodgers could still re-sign him to a lower deal, just getting to this point is an impressive development for the 2017 NL Rookie of the Year and 2019 NL MVP the last few years in Los Angeles they have gone in the wrong direction.
Four seasons ago, at age 23, Bellinger hit 47 home runs with a 1.035 OPS to earn his second All-Star nod and his first Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Awards in an MVP season. While his performance fluctuated at times early in his career, he never dipped below league average. He hit at least 25 homers with an OPS+ of 120 or better in each of his first three years in the majors and looked to be one of the game’s preeminent young superstars.
Then came the 2020 season.
Bellinger looked like himself earlier that spring, slashing .324/.343/.588 during Cactus League play, before the pandemic delayed the season. Upon returning to play, he was unable to reproduce his usual form. He started swinging and chasing more often, and a constant tweaking of his mechanics made it difficult to hit any pace, though he still posted a 112 OPS+ while providing above-average defense at first base and in the field .
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 game-clinching blast in the Dodgers’ National League Championship Series comeback victory in Game 7 against the Braves. After rounding the bases, Bellinger celebrated with his teammates. A forearm strike with Kiké Hernandez was a little too aggressive, causing Bellinger’s right shoulder to dislocate. It wasn’t the first time Bellinger had experienced the sensation with his non-throwing shoulder, though the issue had never caused him to miss significant time before. Played in 162 games in 2018, 156 in 2019 and 56 of 60 games in 2020.
After the latest shoulder issue, he opted to have arthroscopic surgery in November 2020. His recovery was ahead of schedule, but as he regained his shoulder strength, a another setback 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.
“Learn a little bit about yourself,” Bellinger previously said. “Really, you know how hard this game is, never take anything for granted.”
His chase percentage went up, his scoring percentage got worse, 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 kept their faith in the precocious slugger, and it rewarded them in the postseason. In an effort to make more contact and pick up speed, Bellinger widened his stance, lowered his hands, flattened his bat path and simplified his swing.
“I was really just trying to get 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, it would ideally be his typical power.
A more compact swing helped Bellinger deliver the game-winning hit to knock off 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 up 2-0 in the series, Bellinger hit a 96 mph fastball, something he hadn’t been able to do all year, and sent Luke Jackson’s offering home to tie the game of three races. run in a 6-5 win.
The Dodgers couldn’t mount another 3-1 series comeback against the Braves, but Bellinger’s outstanding postseason (.353/.436/.471) provided a promising launch pad for him to potentially regain his MVP form for the 2022 season.
But another unusual offseason followed.
This time, the lockout has prevented players from training with teams. Upon his return, Bellinger said he plans to maintain a similar stance and approach that has helped him succeed in the 2021 postseason. But those changes were largely made to accommodate an injury-riddled campaign and they didn’t have to be permanent.
“I don’t think you’ve ever figured that out in baseball, you know what I mean?” Bellinger said. “It’s always a game of adjustments.”
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Feeling healthier in 2022, the tinkering continued. He couldn’t get back on track.
The Dodgers continued to encourage 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 what his swing looked like, what felt comfortable to him, and what made him successful.
“He’s his own person,” Dodgers hitting coach Robert Van Scoyoc said before the 2022 season. “If he has a thought, he’s entitled to try it. It’s his swing, his career, and we have to be there to help him and support him, even if we don’t necessarily think that’s the right thing to do. At this point.”
Brown added: “He’s really trying to navigate what his feelings are. Sometimes, we all know hitters’ feelings will fool them.”
Bellinger finished the 2022 season slashing .210/.265/.389 with 19 home runs while posting the lowest walk rate and the highest strikeout rate and slugging 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 colleagues praised him for solving their problems without complaints or excuses.
“I just think about the guy more than anything,” Kershaw said in April. “We all love Belli. We all watch him grind every day, good or bad, trying to figure it out. Coming off shoulder surgery and all that stuff, that’s a challenge for anybody. About that.”
There were interviews of the player the Dodgers envisioned. He hit two home runs 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 good Health.
The low point came in Game 4 of the NLDS. With the Dodgers’ season on the line, Bellinger, who made $17 million this year, was left out of the starting lineup in favor of Trayce Thompson against right-handed starter Joe Musgrove.
“He was upset,” manager Dave Roberts said. “I wanted to be in there. I was hoping to be there.”
The Dodgers’ season ended with a 5-3 loss, leaving a murky future for the former MVP, who was projected to make just over $18 million this year if the Dodgers had offered him a contract.
“It’s tough,” Roberts said before the season-ending loss. “There’s no exact science. I think I’ve shown that I’ve backed him. I’ve given him a lot of credit because he’s earned it, and I also believe in the player, the talent, the person.”
Eventually, the cost overcame that belief. If the Dodgers want him back, they will have to compete with the rest of the league to do so, which could spell the end of his six-year career with the Dodgers.
Rowan Kavner covers the Dodgers and NL West for FOX Sports. He was previously the Dodgers’ digital and print publisher. Follow him on Twitter at @Rowan Kavner.
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