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Dodgers are nearing decision time on Cody Bellinger

Friday, November 18 is the deadline to tender contracts to players on the 40-man roster

Division Series - San Diego Padres v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Two Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Decision time is coming for the Dodgers regarding Cody Bellinger, with Friday afternoon the deadline to tender contracts to players on the 40-man roster.

Bellinger has five years, 160 days of major league service time, and will be a free agent after the 2023 season. Or he could be a free agent by the end of this week, if the Dodgers decide not to offer him a contract.

Back in 2020, Bellinger was a Super Two, among the top 22 percent in service time among players with at least two but not yet three years of service. That got him a head start on the arbitration process, and four years through the system instead of three. Couple that with his National League MVP season in 2019 immediately leading into his first arbitration year, he started off at a high point.

Bellinger signed a deal for $11.5 million in 2020, a record at the time for someone eligible for salary arbitration for the first time. He took a step back but was still an above-average hitter in 2020, one with excellent defense and a pennant-winning home run to boot. That earned him a $16.1-million deal for 2021.

The dislocated shoulder suffered from celebrating that NLCS homer derailed Bellinger’s offseason and sapped his power. A fractured tibia less than a week into the season just added to the pile on a miserable season. Bellinger hit just .165/.240/.302, a 47 wRC+ in 95 games in 2021, though did show signs of life in the postseason, hitting .353/.436/.471 in 12 games with a home run and an NLDS-winning RBI single to oust San Francisco.

MLB rules limit the most a salary for a player under reserve (ones who haven’t yet reached free agency) can be cut at 20 percent. But the reality is that almost nobody gets a pay cut through arbitration. As such, after a below-replacement-level year, albeit one torpedoed by injuries, Bellinger made $17 million for 2022 after coming to an agreement just before the lockout began.

Bellinger in 2022 had another subpar season, hitting just .210/.265/.389 with 19 home runs in 144 games. Among the 130 major leaguers with enough plate appearances to qualify for leaderboards, Bellinger ranked 129th in on-base percentage, 125th in batting average, 123rd in wRC+ (83), 119th in OPS (.654), and 104th in slugging percentage. He didn’t start the final two games of the NLDS, including once against a right-handed pitcher.

It’s hard to see a rational explanation for how the Dodgers would bring Bellinger back at a salary of over $17 million. MLB Trade Rumors projected Bellinger’s 2023 salary through the arbitration process to be $18.1 million, for instance. But life isn’t always rational.

The Dodgers have a history with Bellinger, having drafted him in 2013, and know him better than any other team, even though the last two years showed that other teams sure are familiar how to get Bellinger out. It’s understandable that the Dodgers might feel they can unlock the production they’ve already seen from him. They don’t even need a repeat of his MVP season, but rather something within reasonable distance of the still valuable player during his other productive years.

Cody Bellinger’s non-MVP seasons

Years PA 2B rate HR rate BB rate K rate ISO BA/OBP/SLG bWAR fWAR
Years PA 2B rate HR rate BB rate K rate ISO BA/OBP/SLG bWAR fWAR
2017-18, 2020 1,423 4.5% 5.3% 11.5% 23.8% .251 .259/.345/.510 9.5 8.8
2021-22 900 4.0% 3.2% 7.7% 27.1% .162 .193/.256/.355 -0.4 0.7

Wondering whether the Dodgers would spend $18 million or so to try to fix Bellinger only truly matters if that move prevents some other way to improve the team, either through trying to stay under the $233-million competitive balance tax threshold to reset their tax rates or if keeping Bellinger around limits their internal budget to make other roster improvements.

Once Clayton Kershaw’s one-year contract is finalized, the Dodgers 2023 payroll for competitive balance tax purposes — including Bellinger, plus assumptions for arbitration-eligible players and others to fill out the roster — will be a shade over $200 million, for reference.

If there is a path toward Bellinger sticking around, it’s that he hasn’t been fully himself the last two years. While 2021 was clearly decimated by injuries, Bellinger did not spend time on the injured list during 2022. But during the GM meetings last week in Las Vegas, Bellinger’s agent Scott Boras mentioned “health and strength” as a path for Bellinger to improve, as noted by Jack Harris of the Los Angeles Times:

While Bellinger was nominally healthy in 2022, he didn’t have access to the Dodgers training or coaching staff during the 99-day lockout last offseason.

Bill Plunkett at the Orange County Register talked to Andrew Friedman about that last week:

And last year’s lockout prevented the Dodgers from working with Bellinger on his strength or his swing during the offseason. That isn’t the case this year and Friedman said Bellinger has been “talking through things” with the team’s hitting coaches as well as the strength and performance staff.

“I think it’s always easier in the offseason than it is in season,” Friedman said. “In an alternate universe of no lockout last year, would it have played out differently? I don’t know the answer. But at least do as much as we can over the offseason. His desire and willingness to attack it is not a question at all in my mind.”

Friedman expressed similar thoughts last week while on MLB Network in an interview with Brian Kenny.

“I still very much believe in the true talent and ability, and I’ve watched how hard he has worked and how much he cares,” Friedman said. “Obviously last year was disappointing, he’d be the first to say that, and that there’s a lot more in there. It’s incumbent upon him, us, everyone to figure out how to do that. From a talent and work ethic standpoint, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be able to.”

We’ll find out by Friday if the Dodgers are willing to pay for the privilege to try to find what’s been missing.