Dodgers non-tender Cody Bellinger, making him a free agent

Cody Bellinger, a 27-year-old outfielder who was an MVP as recently as 2019, was non-tendered by the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday, a somewhat expected move that nonetheless encapsulates his precipitous downfall offensively.

Bellinger was due to make something in the neighborhood of $18 million in 2023, which would have been his final season before free agency. Instead, he’ll venture into the free agent market a year early, though the Dodgers and Bellinger’s agent, Scott Boras, can renegotiate a different contract, perhaps one that covers multiple years at a lower rate.

Regardless, a Dodgers team coming off back-to-back 100-plus-win seasons is in sudden need of a center fielder — and has cleared more than $100 million from its books, with the likes of Trea Turner, Justin Turner, Craig Kimbrel, Tyler Anderson, Andrew Heaney and David Price off the roster. Bellinger kept to provide Gold Glove-caliber defense at that position, in addition to plus speed on the bases, but his struggles offensively became too much to stomach at his current rate.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say that this is a closing of the chapter of Cody and the Dodgers,” president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. “We still very much believe in the talent of Cody and his competitive makeup, and we have interest in a reunion. We’ll continue talks with Cody and his group as he goes through this process on his end.”

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Teams faced an 8 p.m. ET deadline to decide whether to tender a 2023 contract to their players, which triggered a plethora of minor trades and pre-arbitration agreements.

More than 70 players were ultimately non-tendered. Among the other notables: outfielders Dominic Smith (previously with the New York Mets), Raimel Tapia (Toronto Blue Jays), Franchy Cordero (Boston Red Sox) and Adam Engel (Chicago White Sox); catchers Jorge Alfaro (San Diego Padres) and Luis Torrens (Seattle Mariners); first baseman Luke Voit (Washington Nationals); utility man Brian Anderson (Miami Marlins); and relievers Trevor Gott (Milwaukee Brewers), Alex Reyes (St. Louis Cardinals), Kyle Funkhouser (Detroit Tigers), Jarlin Garcia (San Francisco Giants) and Anthony Gose (Cleveland Guardians).

Bellinger was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player after a 2019 season in which he slashed .305/.406/.629 with 47 home runs, 115 RBIs and 15 stolen bases while being worth 7.7 FanGraphs wins above replacement. Since then, though, he has slashed just .203/.272/.376 over a stretch of 295 regular-season games. His .648 OPS from 2020 to 2022 ranked 299th out of the 338 qualified hitters during that stretch.

On the heels of an MVP award and coming off the COVID-19-shortened spring training, Bellinger rejoined the Dodgers in the summer of 2020 with an overhauled batting stance that he struggled with throughout the shortened season. He then suffered a shoulder injury during a home run celebration in the NL Championship Series that necessitated offseason surgery.

Recovering from that injury was seen as part of the reason for his struggles in 2021, when his batting average plummeted to .165. He switched to a more basic approach down the stretch — lowering his hands, choking up on the bat — and produced in the postseason, inspiring hope heading into 2022. But Bellinger struggled once more, batting .210 with 19 home runs in 144 games for a Dodgers team that set a franchise record with 111 triumphs.

A telling sign came in the ensuing playoffs, right before the team was eliminated by the Padres in the NL Division Series, when Bellinger, a left-handed hitter, sat against an opposing right-hander in Game 4.

Friedman stated he had conversations with other teams about a potential trade for Bellinger prior to the deadline but didn’t go into detail. After not lining up, he delivered the news to Bellinger and had what Friedman described as “a really good conversation,” adding: “Both sides want to continue talking.”

In addition to center field, the Dodgers — hopeful of bringing Justin Turner back to play third base and serve as a designated hitter — could still stand to add a shortstop and a starting pitcher. They can go to the top of the market to sign players like Aaron Judge, Brandon Nimmo, Xander Bogaerts, Carlos Correa, Justin Verlander and Jacob deGrom, or they can make more conservative additions and give opportunities to their promising crop of young players. The latter approach feels more likely.

The Dodgers want to start to incorporate their young players and seem weary about the luxury-tax threshold after exceeding it each of the past two years, which has resulted in tens of millions of dollars in penalties.

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