For most of the last two seasons, as their star center fielder and former most valuable player slipped into a puzzling cycle of injuries, inconsistency and head-scratching production, the Dodgers have remained steadfast.
They still believe in Cody Bellinger’s ability. They’re still hopeful the 27-year-old slugger can rediscover some semblance of the 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 put himself in position to be a real force for us next year.”
Whether Bellinger will still be with the Dodgers next year, though, is a decision that could be determined in the next couple of days.
By Friday, the club will have to decide whether to tender Bellinger a contract for the 2023 season, or release him after a couple of stunningly subpar seasons that have derailed his once-burgeoning career.
At the core of the decision will be whether the Dodgers feel comfortable paying Bellinger a salary of likely more than $18 million in 2023.
Because Bellinger is entering his last year of arbitration under team control, and because the arbitration process virtually always awards raises to players one year after the next, Bellinger has been one of the Dodgers’ highest earners ever since making a then-record $11.5 million in his first arbitration-eligible season in 2020, when he was coming off his 2019 MVP performance.
Even though Bellinger’s play has tailed off since then — he has batted .195 with a .642 on-base-plus-slugging percentage the last three seasons, and has produced at a well-below-league-average clip the last two years — his salary has continued to rise.
This week, it is all coming to a head, 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 he will suffer more extended slumps at the plate, problems with strikeouts and swing mechanics, and eat up a not-insignificant portion of their payroll as they plan for the rest of the offseason.
At the GM meetings last week, both Friedman and Dodgers general manager Brandon Gomes said the club had remained undecided on how it would handle Bellinger’s situation.
“We still have time to work through what everything looks like,” Friedman said.
“We know he’s working hard with our group and thinking that a good offseason of strength will put him in a good position to perform,” Gomes added. “That’s what we know right now.”
But with the notender deadline looming, there has been no public indication of which route 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] are so hard to find.”
The Dodgers have little doubt about Bellinger’s atmospheric potential.
In his first three years, the former fourth-round draft pick averaged 40 home runs per season, won a rookie-of-the-year award and MVP, and seemed destined to be the face of the Dodgers’ future.
But then, after regressing in 2020, he suffered a shoulder injury during a playoff celebration with then-teammate Kiké Hernandez that required surgery. During the 2021 season, he suffered left leg and rib fractures that sidelined him for much of the year and impacted his performance.
This past year, Bellinger played in 144 games and rebounded slightly from his dismal 2021, batting .210 with 19 home runs and a .654 OPS.
However, he still struggled to find 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 still think there’s upside,” Gomes said of Bellinger at the end of the year.
The question is whether the Dodgers see enough to justify paying him $18 million or more.
The Dodgers have noted that this winter would be Bellinger’s first full offseason in three years working with their hitting staff, after he spent 2021 rehabilitating his shoulder and much of 2022 barred from contact with the team during the league’s three-month lockout.
Boras believes his client is rebuilding the most strength he’s had in his shoulders and legs since the 2020 playoffs, as well — something that some evaluators believed might have been hampering Bellinger’s performance even during this past year.
Bellinger’s work ethic and drive also continue to receive positive reviews. He was a frequent participant in early batting practice this year, going through countless repetitons in front of hitting coaches and video cameras. His highly touted defense has remained a strength, too, seemingly unaffected by his problems at the plate.
“We still very much believe in Belli’s ability,” Friedman said, “and we got to see firsthand how hard he worked throughout the season.”
The risk still remains, though.
The risk that Bellinger won’t turn things around next year. That the Dodgers could turn to cheaper — albeit lower-ceiling — alternatives in center field. That his $18 million could be better spent by an organization that has developed a shrewdly efficient reputation under Friedman.
If the Dodgers don’t tender Bellinger a contract on Friday, they could still try and re-sign him at a lesser salary — similar to the approach they’ve taken with Justin Turner this offseason after declining a club option.
But doing so could also very well mark the end of Bellinger’s time with the team, as he’d likely draw plenty of interest from other suitors seeking to snag a former MVP on a more manageable one-year salary.
Right now, they are all factors weighing on the Dodgers’ decision-making process.
The team still believes in Bellinger. But the clock on that faith is ticking.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.