Cody Bellinger, a 27-year-old outfielder who was an MVP as recently as 2019, was non-tendered by the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday, a somewhat expected move that nonetheless encapsulates his precipitous downfall offensively.
Bellinger was due to make something in the neighborhood of $18 million in 2023, which would have been his final season before free agency. Instead, he'll venture into the free agent market a year early, though the Dodgers and Bellinger's agent, Scott Boras, can renegotiate a different contract, perhaps one that covers multiple years at a lower rate.
Regardless, a Dodgers team coming off back-to-back 100-plus-win seasons is in sudden need of a center fielder -- and has cleared more than $100 million from its books, with the likes of Trea Turner, Justin Turner, Craig Kimbrel, Tyler Anderson, Andrew Heaney and David Price off the roster. Bellinger continued to provide Gold Glove-caliber defense at that position, in addition to plus speed on the bases, but his struggles offensively became too much to stomach at his current rate.
"I wouldn't necessarily say that this is a closing of the chapter of Cody and the Dodgers," president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. "We still very much believe in the talent of Cody and his competitive makeup, and we have interest in a reunion. We'll continue talks with Cody and his group as he goes through this process on his end."
Teams faced an 8 p.m. ET deadline to decide whether to tender a 2023 contract to their players, which triggered a plethora of minor trades and pre-arbitration agreements. More than 70 players were ultimately non-tendered. Among the other notables: outfielders Dominic Smith (previously with the New York Mets), Raimel Tapia (Toronto Blue Jays), Franchy Cordero (Boston Red Sox) and Adam Engel (Chicago White Sox); catchers Jorge Alfaro (San Diego Padres) and Luis Torrens (Seattle Mariners); first baseman Luke Voit (Washington Nationals); utility man Brian Anderson (Miami Marlins); and relievers Trevor Gott (Milwaukee Brewers), Alex Reyes (St. Louis Cardinals), Kyle Funkhouser (Detroit Tigers), Jarlin Garcia (San Francisco Giants) and Anthony Gose (Cleveland Guardians).
Bellinger was named the National League's Most Valuable Player after a 2019 season in which he slashed .305/.406/.629 with 47 home runs, 115 RBIs and 15 stolen bases while being worth 7.7 FanGraphs wins above replacement. Since then, though, he has slashed just .203/.272/.376 over a stretch of 295 regular-season games. His .648 OPS from 2020 to 2022 ranked 299th out of the 338 qualified hitters during that stretch.
On the heels of an MVP award and coming off the COVID-19-shortened spring training, Bellinger rejoined the Dodgers in the summer of 2020 with an overhauled batting stance that he struggled with throughout the shortened season. He then suffered a shoulder injury during a home run celebration in the NL Championship Series that necessitated offseason surgery.
Recovering from that injury was seen as part of the reason for his struggles in 2021, when his batting average plummeted to .165. He switched to a more basic approach down the stretch -- lowering his hands, choking up on the bat -- and produced in the postseason, inspiring hope heading into 2022. But Bellinger struggled once more, batting .210 with 19 home runs in 144 games for a Dodgers team that set a franchise record with 111 victories. A telling sign came in the ensuing playoffs, right before the team was eliminated by the Padres in the NL Division Series, when Bellinger, a left-handed hitter, sat against an opposing right-hander in Game 4.
Friedman said he had conversations with other teams about a potential trade for Bellinger prior to the deadline but didn't go into detail. After not lining up, he delivered the news to Bellinger and had what Friedman described as "a really good conversation," adding: "Both sides want to continue talking."
"We still really believe in the talent of Cody and feel like he is as committed as ever to figure it out," Friedman said. "And that coupled with the talent that we have in our weight room, on our coaching staff, we feel like we, collectively, with him, can figure it out."
The Dodgers' 2023 payroll commitments are still largely dependent on whether an independent arbiter will uphold Trevor Bauer's record-long suspension stemming from sexual assault allegations, an initial two-year ban that lasts through the upcoming season. Bauer would count $34 million toward the Dodgers' 2023 competitive balance tax payroll, which is used to determine whether teams exceed the luxury-tax threshold. With Bauer -- and while also counting Clayton Kershaw, who has agreed to terms on a one-year deal that is expected to be about $20 million but has yet to be announced -- the Dodgers' CBT payroll stands at roughly $220 million. Without his salary, it's somewhere in the neighborhood of $185 million, $48 million below the first tier.
In addition to center field, the Dodgers -- hopeful of bringing Justin Turner back to play third base and serve as a designated hitter -- could still stand to add a shortstop and a starting pitcher. They can go to the top of the market to sign players like Aaron Judge, Brandon Nimmo, Xander Bogaerts, Carlos Correa, Justin Verlander and Jacob deGrom, or they can make more conservative additions and give opportunities to their promising crop of young players. The latter approach feels more likely. The Dodgers want to begin to incorporate their young players and seem weary about the luxury-tax threshold after exceeding it each of the past two years, which has resulted in tens of millions of dollars in penalties.
"Going over it is something that we've done with regularity, and it adds cost," Friedman said. "All of that gets factored in. It's never been, 'Hey, we have to get under.' It's been about putting the most talented team together. Obviously, we have been aggressive the last two years, and not just in terms of payroll but in terms of taxes paid as well. And all of that just gets factored in, and so as you're nearing the threshold, just as we've done every other year, that's just a factor in a decision on an acquisition.
"We're going to spend the next few months vetting all of our various options and trying to be aggressive as we can be, with balancing that with trying to give some opportunity to some of the talented young pitching that we have, some of the talented young position players."