Bellinger dribbles non-tender, but can bring him back

In a move that would have been unimaginable just two seasons ago, the Dodgers decided to take on un-tender outsider Cody Bellinger before Friday’s deadline. The move makes Bellinger, the 2019 National League Player of the Year, a free agent for the first time in his career.

“It was obviously a unique path for Cody as he struggled with injuries and worked hard over the past few years to return to his all-star caliber performance,” said Dodgers President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman. “However, this did not play out as well as we had hoped or expected, and so we had to make the difficult decision not to bid.”

Bellinger was set to make over $20 million during his final salary arbitration-eligible season. Given Bellinger’s subpar production at the plate each of the past two seasons, this was a number the Dodgers didn’t feel comfortable paying, even if they believed Bellinger could bounce back next season.

The move doesn’t necessarily end Bellinger’s time in Los Angeles. The Dodgers will try to get him back at a lower price, but it will be a tall order. The quarterback is expected to have many suitors. Friedman said the Dodgers explored trading Bellinger before the non-bid deadline, but talks did not materialize.

Now that Bellinger is a free agent and can sign for less money, the Rays, Cardinals, Blue Jays, Cubs, and Marlins are among the long list of teams that would be interested in his services.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say this is the end of Cody and the Dodgers chapter,” Friedman said. “We continue to believe very strongly in Cody’s talent and competitive build. We have an interest in a reunion and will continue conversations with Cody and his group. This matter is discussed at its conclusion.”

The expected large group of suitors will be for Bellinger due to the prospect of him exploiting what once made him one of MLB’s best players. Bellinger hit 39 homers in 2017 and was named NL Rookie of the Year. In ’19, he hit 47 homers and earned Christian Yelich his first MVP award.

This type of production became what the Dodgers and Bellinger expected, but it has become impossible to recreate. In ’20, Bellinger dislocated his non-throwing shoulder while celebrating a homer in Game 7 of the NLCS. He had off-season surgery, which sidelined him for a few weeks into spring training.

During Week 1 of the ’21 season, Bellinger fractured his left fibula during a freak play against the A’s. Dealing with injuries, Bellinger was unable to go to the plate. He finished the year with 10 homers and a 0.542 OPS, one of the worst in the Majors among qualifying hitters.

Bellinger joined spring training this year excited about his added strength. But results never came, and he posted 654 OPS in 144 games. This lack of production led the Dodgers to bench Bellinger in Game 4 of the NLDS against the Padres, even with right-hander Joe Musgrove on the mound.

“I thought the last off-season, I was very confident [about a bounce-back season]”It hasn’t been proven in ’22,” Friedman said of Bellinger. “There is very little known about what we do. … We still really believe in Cody’s talent and feel he is more committed than ever to discovering it.

“That, coupled with the talent we have in our weight room, on our coaching staff, we feel like we, collectively, can figure that out. But again I felt that way in ’22. I feel that way again going into ’23.”

Bellinger is 27 years old and still plays in an elite midfield defense. The argument for offering him a contract revolved around giving him one last chance to figure things out in Los Angeles. But with the Dodgers needing to promote other positions, particularly the starting staff, his price had become too expensive at this point in the offseason.

With Bellinger off the roster, the Dodgers are slated to sign Tracey Thompson and Chris Taylor to play center field. James Ottman is also an option. The Dodgers will also keep tabs on free outside players like Kevin Kiermaier, who was drafted by the Rays in 2010 by Friedman.

Los Angeles has cleared nearly $100 million in payroll since the inception of free agency but will likely enter the 23 season with a lower payroll than it has in the past two years.

Also Dodgers starter Luke Williams, who claimed off waivers from the Marlins last week, and outfielder Edwin Rios, who hit seven umpires in 27 games with the Dodgers last season.

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