The Dodgers announced they’ve placed outfielder Cody Bellinger on the 10-day injured list, retroactive to September 18, due to a left rib fracture. Luke Raley has been recalled from Triple-A Oklahoma City to take his place on the active roster. In better news, manager Dave Roberts told reporters (including Fabian Ardaya of the Athletic) the club anticipates reinstating fellow outfielder AJ Pollock from the IL before Thursday’s game against the Rockies.
While Bellinger’s rib fracture diagnosis sounds alarming, it doesn’t seem the club expects him to miss too much time. He hasn’t played since last Friday, but he was in tonight’s initial starting lineup before being scratched because of continued soreness. That setback will keep him out of action for at least the next week, but it’s seemingly possible he’ll be back on the field before the regular season is through.
The injury is the latest development in a season that has been an unequivocal disaster for Bellinger. He’d already been on the IL twice this season with leg issues, and he hasn’t produced anywhere near his capabilities even when healthy enough to play. Over 337 plate appearances, Bellinger is hitting .159/.237/.291 with just nine home runs. He’s striking out at an alarming 26.1% rate and has managed just a .188 batting average on balls in play. Of the 242 hitters with 300+ plate appearances, only Jackie Bradley Jr. has a worse park-adjusted hitting line than Bellinger by measure of wRC+.
It’s been a shockingly poor season for the 26-year-old, who’s just two years removed from winning National League MVP honors. Bellinger couldn’t replicate that year’s massive .305/.406/.629 showing in last season’s truncated schedule, but his .239/.333/.455 mark in 2020 was still far better than this year’s performance.
Bellinger’s massive struggles set the stage for some interesting decisions for the Dodgers’ front office. Assuming he’s able to make it back from his injury in time for the postseason, they’ll need to decide whether to carry him on the playoff roster. That still seems likely, given his left-handed pop and continued plus defense in center field. But it could be difficult to find a ton of playing time for Bellinger on a loaded Los Angeles roster this postseason.
The front office’s confidence in a Bellinger bounceback will also be gauged this winter. Last offseason, he and the Dodgers agreed to a $16.1MM deal to avoid arbitration. He’s slated to go through that process twice more and will likely be due a small raise next winter. (Arbitration salaries are designed to escalate year-over-year, so Bellinger’s salary wouldn’t decline even in spite of his poor performance). At his best, Bellinger’s obviously worth far more than even that significant tally. But he’s a .192/.278/.359 hitter over 580 trips to the plate in the past two seasons, and the Dodgers certainly wouldn’t want to commit that level of outlay if they believe that to be more reflective of his current talent level than his 2017-19 peak is.
A Bellinger non-tender or trade still seems unlikely, given the Dodgers’ immense spending levels and his not too distant MVP season. But the Dodgers should still have plenty of outfield options in coming years, even if Chris Taylor departs in free agency. Mookie Betts is obviously set to play everyday, and Pollock now looks likely to be back next season because of the injury from which he’s now returning.
Pollock’s free agent deal with the Dodgers contained a vesting option that could’ve allowed him to opt out at the end of this season. To do so, he’d have needed to tally 1000 plate appearances between 2020 and 2021. For vesting option purposes, last season’s tallies were multiplied by 2.7 to prorate them over the course of a full season. Pollock picked up 210 plate appearances last year, translating to 567 after prorating. That left him in need of 433 trips to the plate this season to pick up the right to test free agency.
A few weeks ago, Pollock looked well on his way to reaching that threshold. The 33-year-old suffered a hamstring strain on September 4, though, keeping him out for almost three full weeks. He’s been stuck on 386 plate appearances since suffering that injury, meaning he needs 47 more over the course of the season to trigger the potential opt out. By Thursday, the Dodgers will have just ten games remaining in the regular season. Pollock would need to play in all ten and average 4.7 plate appearances per game to reach the option threshold (assuming he and the team haven’t modified the clause in the wake of his recent injury). While not completely impossible, it seems unlikely he’d get that much playing time over the season’s final week and a half.
That’d guarantee Pollock returns next season on a $10MM salary, an eminently affordable price for the Dodgers given his quality production. While the former Diamondback’s tenure in L.A. started slow, he’s been very effective over the past couple seasons. Going back to the beginning of 2020, Pollock is hitting .289/.339/.529 with 32 homers and 34 doubles in essentially the equivalent of one full season’s worth of playing time. He’d come out of this year’s All-Star Break scorching hot, with a .329/.379/.497 showing in the second half before his injury.
Pollock’s forthcoming return will be a welcome addition to a Dodger team hoping to avoid the Wild Card game. They’ve continued to hover just behind the league-best Giants in the NL West, entering play tonight one game back. Los Angeles closes out their season with series against the Rockies, Diamondbacks, Padres and Brewers, while the Giants will take on San Diego, Colorado and Arizona before facing the Padres again to close out the season.