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Cody Bellinger 2021 salary arbitration preview

The Dodgers’ center fielder and first baseman is eligible for salary arbitration for the second time.

2020 World Series Game 4: Los Angeles Dodgers v. Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Kelly Gavin/MLB Photos via Getty Images

What a difference a year makes. Dodgers center fielder Cody Bellinger is eligible for salary arbitration for a second time. He followed up his MVP season with a down year, but was still quite valuable. Figuring out that value is the task at hand for his 2021 salary, and possibly beyond.

Having a down year is all relative. Bellinger hit .239/.333/.455 with 12 home runs, but even those numbers made him above average offensively, with a 114 wRC+. Add in stellar defense, finishing second in the SABR Defensive Index in center field despite starting only two thirds of his games at the position, and Bellinger was still quite valuable. While not at his 2019 MVP level, Bellinger last year was on pace for another 4-bWAR season like his first two years.

Bellinger debuted in the majors on April 25, 2017, and since then his 123 home runs rank fourth in the majors, behind only J.D. Martinez (131), Nelson Cruz (130), and Mike Trout (129). By bWAR (18.9) Bellinger ranks 10th among major league position players over the last four seasons, and by fWAR (16.7) he’s tied for 12th. No matter how you slice it, Bellinger is one of the most productive players in baseball, even if he’s not quite at his MVP peak.

But that MVP award vaults Bellinger into a special category, and was a big reason why his $11.5 million salary last year as a Super Two set a record for highest salary by a player eligible for salary arbitration for the first time. So where does Bellinger stand entering his second year in arbitration at age 25?

Let’s take a look, with the help of MLB Trade Rumors arbitration tracker, Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs, and Cot’s Baseball Contracts. Indispensable resources, all.

Cody Bellinger arbitration comparables

Player Pos Year Service time Salary Prev. salary % increase bWAR (yr) bWAR (career)
Player Pos Year Service time Salary Prev. salary % increase bWAR (yr) bWAR (career)
Cody Bellinger CF/1B 2021 3.160 TBD $11,500,000 TBD 1.7 18.9
Kris Bryant 3B 2019 3.171 $12,900,000 $10,850,000 18.89% 1.9 20.1
Josh Donaldson 3B 2016 3.158 $11,650,000 $4,300,000 170.93% 4.5 22.5
Jose Abreu 1B 2018 4.000 $13,000,000 $10,825,000 20.09% 5.0 17.3
Bryce Harper RF 2017 4.159 $13,625,000 $5,000,000 172.50% 1.5 21.2

There aren’t many true comps, so I had to stretch a little. Kris Bryant and Josh Donaldson previously won MVPs, with Donaldson’s award coming the year immediately preceding his second arbitration year, and he signed a two-year extension. The collective bargaining agreement allows for an arbitration panel to consider comparable players with up to one more year of service time, so I included included Bryce Harper, a former MVP one year ahead of 2021 Bellinger in 2017, and José Abreu, in his second arbitration year.

Also from the CBA, which explains in part why Bellinger’s MVP award pushed him into record territory last year:

This shall not limit the ability of a Player or his representative, because of special accomplishment, to argue the equal relevance of salaries of Players without regard to service, and the arbitration panel shall give whatever weight to such argument as is deemed appropriate.

Of the comps above, Harper and Bryant might be the most apt, both coming off relatively down years after previously winning an MVP. Harper’s previous salary wasn’t as relevant, since it was part of a two-year contract he signed before winning MVP. Bryant hit .272/.374/.460, a 125 wRC+, with 13 home runs in 2018, following up three 5+ win seasons with 1.9 bWAR. He earned $12.9 million, an 18.9-percent raise over his Super Two year, which was the record for such service time before Bellinger. Giving Bellinger a similar raise for 2021 puts him at roughly $13.7 million.

Bryant is also a comparable guide for what Bellinger might expect through his four arb years. Bryant is arbitration-eligible this year with the Cubsand rumored to be available — having earned $42.35 million over the last three years. Ryan Howard, who like Bellinger and Bryant won an MVP before his Super Two year, signed a contract that covered his final three arb years. He made a total of $64 million through what would have been his four arb years.

Super Twos with an MVP already under their belt

Player Years Arb 1 Arb 2 Arb 3 Arb 4 First 3 arb Total arb years
Player Years Arb 1 Arb 2 Arb 3 Arb 4 First 3 arb Total arb years
Ryan Howard 2008-11 $10m $15m $19m $20m $44m $64m
Kris Bryant 2018-21 $10.85m $12.9m $18.6m $19.5m $42.35m $61.85m
Cody Bellinger 2020-23 $11.5m $16.1m $17m $44.6m TBD
Howard signed a three-year contract for his final three arb years, while Bryant went year to year.

These two remain the rubric should Bellinger sign a multi-year contract through his arbitration seasons, or potentially beyond. But first, let’s figure out what Bellinger might make in 2021.

In his salary arbitration projections at MLB Trade Rumors in October, Matt Swartz used three models to project, to account for the oddity of a shortened 2020 season. His estimates for Bellinger range from $11.5 million (his same salary as 2020) to $15.9 million.

Bellinger’s career numbers are roughly comparable to Abreu and Harper, even though they had more service time.

Cody Bellinger comparable players (career)

Player Years G PA 2B HR wRC+ bWAR fWAR Salary
Player Years G PA 2B HR wRC+ bWAR fWAR Salary
Cody Bellinger 2017-2020 506 2,084 98 123 137 18.9 16.7 TBD
Kris Bryant 2015-2018 559 2,471 132 107 140 20.1 23.0 $12,900,000
José Abreu 2014-2017 614 2,414 144 124 139 17.3 14.8 $13,000,000
Bryce Harper 2012-2018 657 2,770 122 121 139 21.2 22.3 $13,625,000

They earned $13 million and $13.625 million, respectively, in those years, in roughly the same range as Bellinger getting a Bryant-esque raise. My guess for Bellinger will fit right in with this group, putting him at $13.75 million for 2021, a nearly 20-percent raise.