Cody Bellinger entered 2015 with the opportunity to jump into the conversation as part of the next wave of young Dodger talent. Despite jumping a level of competition, Bellinger announced his presence in a loud way, leading the organization with 30 home runs while expanding his defensive capabilities to centerfield. Bellinger adapted his offensive approach to a profile more suited to first base, but he will need to answer questions about his real power potential outside the friendly offensive environments in the California League. A follow up big season in the Texas League will push Bellinger’s exposure to league-wide levels as one of the top prospects in baseball.
While it would be easy to suggest that Bellinger’s power surge was heavily influenced by his environment, Bellinger made significant changes to his swing and plate approach that are conducive to pop. Gone are the high hands in his set-up from his prep days, Bellinger now starts his hands lower in his swing, changing his swing plane (a similar change to Alex Verdugo). While he still has an extremely quick bat, Bellinger is not afraid to extend his arms and take full advantage of his long frame.
With Bellinger’s steeper swing plane has come more fly balls and strikeouts. Part of his strikeout percentage (27.6 percent) is likely attributable to his jump from short season to High-A and spending most of the season as one of the younger players in the league. After July 1, Bellinger lowered his strikeout rate to 23.1 percent for the remainder of the season, with his walk percentage almost a percentage point higher (10.5 percent) than his season total. Bellinger makes adjustments to off-speed pitches better than most power hitters, and exhibits more bat speed than the typical first base prospect.
I’m more comfortable with Bellinger’s power surge being for real because Cody has started to grow into his body. Though listed at 6’4, 180 lbs., Bellinger no longer looks so much like the lean, skin-and-bones hitter from his prep tape. Bellinger is noticeably wider across his shoulders and you can see more muscle in his arms and lower body. He’s still in need of more overall mass, but he’s made big strides in short time and I’m impressed with the work he has accomplished so far.
Bellinger’s ultimate defensive position may determine just how much bulk he wants to carry. He spent more time in centerfield this year, and as a solid runner underway, he might be able to handle the position for a few early seasons. Bellinger’s offensive profile would also fit in an outfield corner if his bat proves ready before the Dodgers are ready to move on from Adrian Gonzalez.
Ultimately, he might be most valuable still at first base, because he has Gold Glove potential. Bellinger has extremely soft hands and a long frame, giving him a wide catch radius at first base. He’s agile and flexible, capable of coming off the bag to make plays on errant throws, or handle hot shots to his position. First base puts more pressure on his ability to contribute offensively, but with his potential pointing upward, there’s no reason to rush him off the position.
After shouldering the load for the California League champion’s offense, Bellinger is ready for the jump to Double-A. He’s only 20 years old and would be one of the younger hitters in the Texas League, so should he struggle in 2016 he has time on his side to repeat the level and still maintain his status as a premium prospect. While he should find the offensive environments less friendly, Tulsa has proven kind to left-handed power hitters in the past, with a short fence lining the bullpens in right field. While I don’t quite expect another .270 isolated slugging from him, I would consider a number above .200 to be another successful season for Bellinger.
Without a quick move to the outfield, Bellinger is blocked to the bigs by Adrian Gonzalez, who has three years remaining on his deal. It’s still too early to worry about Bellinger’s future ETA, as he has to make the big jump from High A to Double A still, with a few years left before the Dodgers must protect him. Bellinger will likely spend full seasons at both the Double and Triple A level before the Dodgers consider giving him major league time. His bat, however, could determine just how quickly the Dodgers move with him, and if it accelerates his time table, expect Bellinger to break into the big leagues as a right fielder. That’s overly speculative for now, and Bellinger’s primary concern should be making improvements to his plate approach against the better pitching of the Texas League.