On Nov. 18, the Los Angeles Dodgers have one of the most difficult decisions to make in the recent history of the franchise: will they tender former Rookie of the Year and MVP Cody Bellinger a contract for the 2023 season?
Had Bellinger not been a Super Two player, awarded some of the highest arbitration salaries of all time, this wouldn’t even be a discussion. But the 27-year-old is due over $18 million and has been a replacement-level player for about three years now.
It’s not that the ~$18 million is necessarily a problem for the Dodgers to spend (it isn’t at all). It’s just that there are so many other needs that need to be addressed, and they can easily find a center fielder whose defense is on par with Bellinger’s for half the price.
And does keeping him for one more year really matter? He would need a magical 2023 to justify the Dodgers paying him long-term at this point. There’s obviously a longstanding relationship here, as well as a one-of-a-kind talent the world has witnessed that’s gone dormant. So it’s a bit more complicated than simply cutting bait.
But if the reason for the Dodgers not pulling the plug on the relationship a year early is because they’re fearful of the interest Bellinger will garner in free agency, then they’re doing it all wrong.
Dodgers can’t be worried about free agency interest in Cody Bellinger if he’s non-tendered
Whatever’s happened to Bellinger is unfortunate, and there’s been a lot of sympathy and patience for him over the last few years. But if he’s been unable to get back on track and rediscover his form as a member of the league’s literal best offense since 2020, then what makes anybody think he’ll be able to do so with, say, the Cubs? Or the Mets? Or the Blue Jays? The Cubs and Mets have been mentioned as potential landing spots for Belli if he’s non-tendered, and the Jays traded Teoscar Hernández this week in an effort to potentially move George Springer to a corner outfield spot, leaving a vacancy in center field.
The Dodgers could just as easily make do by signing somebody like Brandon Nimmo, who would cost a similar AAV to Bellinger (wild). They could go cheaper and bring in Kevin Kiermaier, whose team option was rejected by the Rays. They could swing for the fences and bring in Aaron Judge, who could hold down center field for a couple of years before it’d be best to shift him back over to right.
There are many more attractive options at the Dodgers’ disposal that can’t be off the table simply because they’re worried about Bellinger succeeding elsewhere.
Even if the Dodgers did non-tender him, wouldn’t fans think the former fourth-round pick would be open to re-signing at a cheaper price? He didn’t take a raise from 2021 to 2022 because of how poorly he performed, so there’s at least some belief he’s self-aware enough to understand where the Dodgers might be coming from.
Maybe we’re complicating this and Bellinger gets once last chance. But after another disappointing playoff exit, fans have to be ready for some drastic decisions to be made with players who haven’t carried their weight — no matter how intrinsic they are to the team’s culture.