Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder Cody Bellinger is a free agent earlier than anyone could have expected when he won the NL MVP award back in 2019.
The Dodgers announced Friday they had non-tendered Bellinger, opting to let him hit free agency rather than pay him an arbitration salary projected to land around $18 million. Infielder Edwin Rios and recent waiver claim Luke Williams were also non-tendered.
The Los Angeles Dodgers have non-tendered OFs Cody Bellinger and Luke Williams, as well as IF Edwin Ríos.
— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) November 19, 2022
Bellinger had been on track to hit free agency after the 2023 season had the Dodgers retained him.
The door remains open for Bellinger to return to the Dodgers; the team simply did not want to pay the price required to guarantee him coming back.
Cody Bellinger goes from NL MVP to non-tendered
The decision cements one of the more bizarre falls from grace baseball has seen in recent years, even as the Dodgers kept posting 100-win seasons with him playing center field.
Bellinger looked like one of MLB's next big stars when he took home the MVP award after a season in which he hit .305/.406/.629 with 47 homers while playing an above-average right field. What happened next has been painful: a relatively down year in 2020, then two seasons with a combined .193/.256/.355 line and 27.1 percent strikeout rate, up from 16.3 percent in 2019.
Much of those struggles could be attributed to a dislocated right shoulder Bellinger sustained while celebrating a go-ahead homer in Game 7 of the 2020 NLCS against the Atlanta Braves. The long ball was arguably Bellinger's finest moment as a Dodger, but you can see something is clearly wrong with his shoulder after enthusiastically high-fiving his teammates.
That shoulder had been a recurring issue for Bellinger, but the NLCS dislocation eventually required him to undergo surgery after the 2020 season. He has not looked right at the plate since.
That's not to say Bellinger has been unplayable for the Dodgers, as he has shown significant defensive value in recent years as a well-above-average center fielder, not to mention his positive presence in the Los Angeles clubhouse. His 2021 season was dismal, but he still managed to post 1.2 bWAR this season. A glove-first center fielder who is barely passable at the plate isn't what the Dodgers would have hoped for after 2019, and probably not worth $18 million, but it's a player that teams still sign.
Bellinger, who is still only 27 years old, figures to see a decent market for teams with a hole at center field and hopes he can find any of his old magic as a hitter. There are worse lottery tickets out there.