For most of the past two seasons, as their star center fielder and former most valuable player slipped into a terrible cycle of injuries, inconsistency and head-scratching production, the Dodgers remained steadfast.
They still believe in Cody Bellinger’s ability. They are still hopeful that the 27-year-old slugger can rediscover some excellent All-Star-caliber, Silver-Slugger-winning, superstar-affirming form of his old self.
“I know he’s working with our guys,” president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said last week at Major League Baseball’s general manager meetings in Las Vegas, “and doing everything he can to position themselves to be a real force for us next year. .”
Whether Bellinger will still be with the Dodgers next year, however, is a decision that could be decided in the coming days.
By Friday, the club will have to decide whether to offer Bellinger a contract through the 2023 season, or let him go after a couple of impressive, subpar seasons that ended his early-burgeoning career.
At the heart of the decision will be whether the Dodgers feel comfortable paying Bellinger a salary that is likely to exceed $18 million in 2023.
Because Bellinger is entering his final arbitration year under team control, and because the arbitration process almost always raises awards for players year after year, Bellinger is one of the Dodgers’ highest earners since making $11.5 million i. his first arbitration-eligible season in 2020, when he was coming off his 2019 MVP performance.
Although Bellinger’s play has taken off since then — he’s batting .195 with a .642 on-base plus slugging percentage over the past three seasons, and has shown at a well-below-league clip over the past two years — his salary has continued to rise.
This week, it’s all coming up, with the Dodgers weighing the hope that Bellinger can provide power in the middle of the lineup and strong defense in the middle of the outfield, against the fear that he will suffer slumps. more expanded at the plate. , issues with reach and swing mechanics, and eat up a significant portion of their payroll as they plan for the rest of the season.
At the GM meetings last week, Friedman and Dodgers general manager Brandon Gomes said the club still wasn’t sure how it would handle Bellinger’s situation.
“We still have time to work through what everything looks like,” Friedman said.
“We know he’s been working hard with our group and he’s thinking that a good strength season will put him in a good position to perform,” Gomes added. “That’s all we know right now.”
But due to the deadline for notaries, it has not been publicly revealed which way the team will take.
“I don’t know,” Bellinger’s agent, Scott Boras, said of Bellinger’s future last week in Las Vegas. “But talents [like this] so hard to find.”
The Dodgers have little doubt about Bellinger’s atmospheric potential.
In his first three years, the former fourth-round pick averaged 40 home runs per season, won rookie of the year and MVP awards, and seemed destined for the Dodgers’ future.
But then, after his retirement in 2020, he suffered a shoulder injury during a replay celebration with then-member Kiké Hernandez that required surgery. During the 2021 season, he suffered leg and rib fractures that sidelined him for much of the year and affected his performance.
Last year, Bellinger played in 144 games and bounced back a bit from his dismal 2021, batting .210 with 19 home runs and a .654 OPS.
However, he still struggled to get a consistent swing at the plate, was benched in Game 4 of the National League Division Series amid a quiet postseason, and entered the offseason with his future shrouded in uncertainty.
“We think there’s still upside,” Gomes said of Bellinger at the end of the year.
The question is whether the Dodgers see enough to pay him $18 million or more for his defense.
The Dodgers noted that this winter will be Bellinger’s first full season in three years with their hitting team, after spending 2021 rehabbing his shoulder and much of 2022 barred from contact with the team during a lockout through month of the series.
Boras believes his client is also rebuilding his greatest strength in his shoulders and legs from the 2020 playoffs — something some evaluators believed could be affecting Bellinger’s performance even this year. spent
Bellinger’s work ethic and drive also continue to receive positive reviews. He was a frequent participant in batting practice early this year, going through numerous repetitions in front of coaches and video cameras. His defense is still a highly touted strength, too, and his problems at the plate seem unaffected.
“We still have a lot of faith in Belli’s ability,” Friedman said, “and we got to see firsthand how hard he worked throughout the season.”
However, the risk remains.
There is a risk that Bellinger won’t turn things around next year. That the Dodgers could turn to other cheaper — albeit cap-heavy — options in center field. That his $18 million could be better spent at an organization that has developed an efficient shrewdman reputation under Friedman.
If the Dodgers don’t offer Bellinger a contract Friday, they could try to re-sign him at a lower salary — similar to the approach they took with Justin Turner this offseason after declining a club option.
But that could also end Bellinger’s tenure with the team, as he would likely draw a lot of interest from other suitors looking to acquire the former MVP for a more manageable one-year salary.
Right now, they are all factors to weigh in the Dodgers’ decision-making process.
The team still believes in Bellinger. But the clock on that belief is ticking.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.