In need of an encore performance to turn his organizational breakout into a national one, Cody Bellinger did not disappoint in the Texas League in 2016. Bellinger not only proved his power was not the product of the offensive-friendly California League, he also improved as an overall offensive talent in a tougher league in Double-A. Though still only 21, Bellinger is close to being major-league ready, but just where he will break in positionally with the Dodgers remains to be seen.
Bellinger earned the nod for the top spot among Yadier Alvarez and now old friend Jose De Leon (ranked 2nd at the time of the trade) on the back of the expected contribution difference he can make as an everyday hitter with power over the starting pitcher duo. While I didn’t see a ceiling quite as high as Corey Seager, whose elite hitting tool allowed for a quick transition to MLB stardom, Bellinger’s upside is still that of an integral building block for the franchise.
What makes Bellinger special as a prospect beyond the tangible skills is the demonstrable growth he’s shown as a player, both in a physical sense and in a development sense. Drafted as a sinewy first baseman, Bellinger has consistently added muscle to his long 6’4 frame while retaining his movement skills and athleticism. Additionally, Bellinger has improved his plate approach and barrel control, cutting his strikeout rate from almost 28% in High-A to just 20% in Double-A.
Despite improvements in walk and strikeout percentages, Bellinger’s fly-ball-heavy approach might prevent him from being a consistently high average hitter. Bellinger’s swing is built for power, with enough elements for a solid hit tool. Bellinger has plus bat speed and employs a full effort approach, which might make it appear that he is out of control or free swinging, but the results suggest otherwise. Bellinger’s swing slices up through the zone and he gets a full high extension, putting his bat in the hitting zone for a long time and generating a higher launch angle on the ball. Occasionally, Bellinger will look a little over-rotational and his approach is pull heavy.
Though a pull-heavy approach might suggest platoon difficulties, Bellinger was better against left-handers in Double-A. I would expect the reverse platoon numbers to correct themselves as he progresses, but Bellinger should still project as an everyday player that can still hit in the middle of the lineup against left handers. As he sees better pitching, Bellinger will also have to watch his aggressiveness against same-siders, where he will occasionally chase breaking balls off the plate.
Bellinger has carried a reputation for plus or better defense at first base since being drafted, and he lived up to the billing in Double A. Bellinger is a quick and highly mobile defender who can make the tough plays in the second base hole and also has range behind him to track down dying quails in shallow right or foul territory. His arm is also a plus for a first baseman. Bellinger could still stand to improve his hands, as he’s not an elite first baseman in handling balls in the dirt and would swipe at balls too much for my liking (his major league mentor Adrian Gonzalez could do wonders here).
To reach the big leagues when his bat is ready, Bellinger will likely have to break in in the Dodger outfield, and Bellinger spent time in both right and center field. Bellinger is passable in both, but probably fits better in right field, as he lacks plus speed. Bellinger’s long stride covers plenty of ground and his arm is at least average for the position. While the outfield could be a long term fit for Bellinger if the team desired, it would be tough to pass up on his defensive potential at first while his bat has ample pop to carry the position.
Bellinger seemed off limits this offseason in trade, and with Gonzalez’s contract expiring in two years (in line with his age and declining output) it creates a best-case scenario where Bellinger will have to earn his playing time in the outfield before being handed the everyday first base job. Though Bellinger has a chance to stick for good at some point in 2017, there’s no immediate rush to have Bellinger on the big league club.
Should the outfield struggle for offense again this season, calling up Bellinger might make more of an impact than the average midseason trade. Bellinger still has room to develop, further refining his plate approach and fine tuning his defense which he will do in Oklahoma City. Though Bellinger is not on the same level of talent as Seager or Julio Urias before him, Bellinger’s value to the Dodgers likely supersedes any value he could generate in trade, and those three could represent the face of this organization moving forward.