Column: Dodgers must figure out what to do with Cody Bellinger

The question was the same on day one of the regular season as it was after Game 2 of the National League Division Series: What will the Dodgers do with Cody Bellinger?

Now that their glorious season could come to an abrupt end this weekend, the Dodgers have a different answer.

When the Dodgers take the field for Game 3 on Friday, with the series now a best-of-three, the formerly most valuable player will be on the bench, manager Dave Roberts said.

In the preanalytics era, the label “good field, no hit” was a compliment. Not so much now. However, by the time the 2022 season rolled around, the Dodgers believed in Bellinger’s glove so strongly that they played him every day on a team expecting to win the World Series.

“He’s going to have a catwalk that he deserves,” Roberts said after the season opener. “I think it’s deserved. And with what he’s doing in midfield, that alone justifies him being in the lineup for a team [with this offense].”

In the first two games of this series, he batted ninth place. In the Dodgers’ 5-3 loss to the San Diego Padres on Wednesday, Bellinger struck twice and hit a single in opposing court. In six at-bats in this series, he has struck four times.

The Dodgers didn’t hit him a seventh, at least not on Wednesday. With the possible tie runs on base in the eighth inning, they fought for Bellinger. The pinch hitter was a backup catcher with a career .225 batting average.

But in the sixth inning, Bellinger saved two runs by making the toughest play a midfielder can make. On a ball hit straight at him and over his head, Bellinger spun and spun and spun and spun, pulling back and then leaping to snatch the ball out of the air as it hit the warning lane.

“He put on a hell of a game,” Roberts said.

“I know he’s doing his best and he snuck up a knock tonight. He’s still working through some things, but yeah, I mean, at some point we’re definitely going to need that offensive.

On Friday, Trayce Thompson will move from left field to center with Chris Taylor starting at left, Roberts said.

The Dodgers don’t bury Bellinger. In the 2021 postseason, the Dodgers didn’t start him twice, both times against lefties: Alex Wood of the San Francisco Giants and Max Fried of the Atlanta Braves. The Padres’ planned starting pitcher on Friday: left-hander Blake Snell, whom Bellinger has batted 10 times, batted four and scored one.

As the Dodgers look ahead and hope for a clutch hit or two from him this weekend, looking back is a look at a notable descent.

Dodgers center fielder Cody Bellinger catches a flyball hit by San Diego Padres' Austin Nola.

Dodgers center fielder Cody Bellinger catches a flyball that was hit by San Diego Padres’ Austin Nola in the sixth inning in Game 2 of the NLDS at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday.

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

In 2019, Bellinger was the league’s most valuable player with 1,035 OPS and its leader in WAR. In the postseason, he struggled with the cleanup.

In 2021 he hit .165 with .542 OPS. He was ranked 131st out of the 132 NL players with at least 300 plate appearances that season. He hit harder than ever. When he hit the ball, he hit it less hard than ever.

The Dodgers had reason to hope Bellingers 2021 was an aberration.

He started the season late recovering from shoulder surgery and then spent time on the injured list with calf, thigh and rib injuries.

The calendar turned to 2022 and spring training. The games didn’t count, but the omens didn’t look good. Bellinger batted .139 last spring, with no extra base hits and 18 strikeouts in 36 at-bats.

In the regular season, the Dodgers gave five players 500 at-bats. The other four — Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman, Will Smith, and Trea Turner — were each at least 20% above the league average, according to OPS+ stats. Bellinger was 20% below the league average. He struck even more often than in 2021.

He hit .210 with .654 OPS. Of the 63 NL players who qualified for the batting title, Bellinger placed 60th in OPS.

The Dodgers hope to be able to talk about the future at least by the end of the month. At some point, the Dodgers will have to decide whether to keep Bellinger — his salary next season is estimated at $18.1 million, according to MLB Trade Rumors projections — or consider ways to squeeze more production out of the position.

In the last postseason game he didn’t start in – Game 1 of last year’s NL Championship series – he came off the bench and got a singles.

We remember best what happened last, and a sweet October hit might erase the memory of another sour summer. Column: Dodgers must figure out what to do with Cody Bellinger

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