Dodgers don’t tender Cody Bellinger, making him a free agent

The Dodgers had until 5 p.m. Friday to decide whether to offer 2019 National League MVP Cody Bellinger a contract for the 2023 season.

It shouldn’t have been a big decision. Bellinger won that MVP award and solidified his Superstar status three years ago this week. He is 27 years old. This is the physical prime of his career. The decision to keep him should have been a formality.

But Bellinger has strayed so far from that peak in the past three seasons that the Dodgers weren’t sure he was worth paying what he should earn through arbitration in 2023.

In the end, the Dodgers decided Bellinger was too far away and didn’t offer him a contract for next season, making him a free agent, according to a person with knowledge of the situation who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter .

According to MLB Trade Rumors, Bellinger, who earned $17 million in 2022, was set to receive a $18 million salary for 2023 through arbitration. Rarely do players receive a pay cut through arbitration. The Dodgers could still sign Bellinger this offseason, but they have to compete against the 29 other clubs in the free-agent market.

The Dodgers had two other options for Bellinger before Friday’s deadline: trade him or sign a contract at a reduced price to avoid arbitration.

Midfield is a position that many teams want to improve. Some saw Bellinger’s potential as enticing. They envisioned an elite talent they could do right. But teams weren’t willing to give up much to pay Bellinger $18 million next season.

Midfield was one of the skinniest positions in the majors in 2022. Remove Aaron Judge – who only played in midfield out of necessity for the New York Yankees and is likely to return to right field next season – and Brandon Nimmo’s 5.4 fWAR was highest in the position. That was rank 20th total. Seattle Mariners rookie Julio Rodríguez finished second among midfielders.

Nimmo, who has never been an All-Star, is expected to land a $100 million contract as a free agent this winter. Rodríguez was named AL Rookie of the Year this week. Good everyday midfielders are a valued commodity.

The Dodgers’ other internal options for the midfielder include Trayce Thompson, Chris Taylor and James Outman.

Thompson was an upset player after the Dodgers acquired him from the Detroit Tigers for cash in June, but he’s 31 and hasn’t played more than 80 games in a major league season. Taylor played just 10 games in midfield and dropped his defense last season while hitting .221 in 454 plate appearances with 160 strikeouts. Outman’s major league career consists of four games.

Bellinger has remained a fan favorite in Los Angeles despite his recent offensive problems, has provided top-notch defense and has the potential to bounce back in the batter’s box. Finding a suitable replacement will not be as easy as it first seems.

Bellinger has struggled with injuries since his MVP season — specifically a labrum issue in his right shoulder that required major surgery in November 2020 — but his offensive decline nonetheless remains harrowing. Three years ago, the question would have been whether the Dodgers could lock Bellinger up with a long-term contract extension before he tests the free hand.

He was a two-time All-Star with a Rookie of the Year award on his resume. He hit .305 with 47 homers and a 1.035 on-base plus slugging percentage to beat Christian Yelich for MVP. He led the NL in bWAR and fWAR. He received a Silver Bat and a Golden Glove for his work on right field.

The Dodgers thought they had a young franchise cornerstone to build on. Then, for the next three seasons, Bellinger became one of the worst players in Major League Baseball.

His .203 batting average was the third-lowest in the majors during that span. His .648 OPS was sixth from the bottom. His 78 wRC+ was the fourth lowest among players with at least 1,000 plate appearances.

His most prolific season of the three was the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, when he struggled to .239 in 56 games with 12 home runs and .789 OPS. The numbers represented a significant drop, but he was one of several stars at the majors to slump during the odd season. Meanwhile, his defense in midfield was excellent.

In October of that year, Bellinger hit three homers with a .911 OPS in 12 games in the National League Championship Series. His third home run gave the Dodgers a one-run lead in Game 7 of the NLCS against the Atlanta Braves and completed a comeback in the seventh inning. It was a season changing swing. Emotions ran high, so high that Bellinger and Kiké Hernández smashed their forearms so badly that Bellinger dislocated his right shoulder.

Immediately in obvious pain, Bellinger stayed in the game and didn’t miss any time during the World Series. The Dodgers beat the Tampa Rays in six games to win the championship, though Bellinger — who was the team’s designated hitter in Game 4 — won three to 22 in the series. He underwent arthroscopic labrum surgery the next month and returned at the start of the 2021 season, but his struggles only got worse.

Bellinger ended up on the injury list three times in 2021 and only played 95 games in the regular season. He hit .165 with .542 OPS, miserable numbers by any standards.

And yet he was one of the Dodgers’ best hitters in the postseason, hitting .353 with .906 OPS in 12 games. Bellinger had the starting shot for RBI in Game 5 of the National League Division against the San Francisco Giants and had a game-winning three-run home run against the Braves in Game 3 of the NLCS. He became a star again. In 2022 he was never one.

Instead, Bellinger batted .219 with 150 strikeouts and .654 OPS in 144 games. The Dodgers gave him a chance to turn things around and stayed with him as their daily midfielder until September, when they started benching him against left-handed pitchers.

Then, surprisingly, the team decided to bench him against a right-handed starter who was eliminated in Game 4 of the NLDS against the San Diego Padres. Bellinger flew out in the eighth inning of the Dodgers’ season-ending loss in a pinch-hit performance.

A few days later, Bellinger was back training three times a week at the Dodgers’ spring training facility in Arizona. But as of Friday night, there’s a good chance last month’s pinch was his last as a Dodger, an inscrutable conclusion to a tenure that reached rare heights just three years ago. Dodgers don’t tender Cody Bellinger, making him a free agent

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