In the months leading up to last week’s non-tender deadline, Cody Bellinger’s status with the Dodgers stood out as perhaps the most fascinating decision among the group, serving as the basis for plenty of spirited debate about whether the former NL MVP would be traded, non-tendered or brought back for one more chance to right the ship in Los Angeles. The Dodgers ultimately made the decision to cut Bellinger loose, making him one of the most intriguing boom-or-bust options on this year’s market — particularly given the scarcity of center fielders.
Agent Scott Boras tells Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic that he’s already received multi-year offers for Bellinger — presumably from teams hoping for the chance to secure a player with star potential at what would be a bargain annual value if they’re successfully able to rehabilitate him. However, pointing to Bellinger’s age (27), Boras suggested that he and Bellinger “most likely… don’t want a multi-year [contract].” MLB.com’s Jon Morosi tweets that the Blue Jays are among the teams to have expressed early interest in Bellinger, adding that they held some trade discussions surrounding Bellinger prior to his non-tender.
There’s good sense to pursuing only contracts that would allow Bellinger to return to the market a year from now. He won’t turn 28 years old until around the 2023 All-Star break, making him the youngest free agent of note this offseason. And although Bellinger has managed just a .193/.256/.355 slash with a 27.1% strikeout rate and 7.7% walk rate since Opening Day 2021 — due in no small part to a series of shoulder injuries that culminated in surgery — he’s also a former NL Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player. From 2017-20, he appeared in 506 games and tallied 2083 plate appearances while batting .273/.364/.547 with 123 home runs, a 21.5% strikeout rate and a 12.4% walk rate.
Even amid his recent offensive freefall, Bellinger has remained at least an average center fielder by virtue of any defensive metric, with Statcast offering particularly bullish reviews of his glovework. Statcast pegs Bellinger at eight Outs Above Average over the past two seasons and placed him in the 63rd percentile or better in arm strength, outfielder jump and sprint speed in both 2021 and 2022. Bellinger swiped 14 bags in 17 tries this past season and is 62-for-76 (81.5%) in his big league career.
Boras represents a pair of former All-Star rebound hopefuls under the age of 30 — Bellinger and Michael Conforto — but he’s publicly declared different contractual targets for the pair of outfielders. With regard to Conforto, Boras has spoken about the goal and purported likelihood that he’ll sign a two-year deal with the opportunity to opt out of the contract after one season — similar in concept (although perhaps not in magnitude) to the one fellow client Carlos Rodon inked with the Giants last winter.
That the ostensible preference or goal for Bellinger is to ink a straight one-year deal doesn’t necessarily indicate that no team is willing to put forth a multi-year deal and an opt-out, but it’s nevertheless a notable discrepancy for a pair of rebound candidates with All-Star ceilings. A straight one-year deal would quite likely be more appealing for teams, as any two-year pact with an opt-out carries considerably more downside for the signing club. (The second year on such contracts is typically only in play if the player gets hurt or performs poorly.)
A straight one-year deal for Bellinger gives him the best path to max out his current earning power, relatively limited as it may be, though it also creates the possibility that even if things break right for him, he’ll be saddled with a qualifying offer a year from now. If Bellinger rebounds strongly enough, that’s not likely to be a major detriment to his market as a 28-year-old, but it’s surely something that’s in the back of his mind as he weighs interest. While it’s doubtful he’d necessarily prioritize signing with a club that feels like a playoff long shot, Bellinger might also be more open to doing so, knowing that if he plays well and emerges as a trade candidate, a midseason move could help him dodge that QO entirely. Of course, a lot needs to go right for him to even be in that position.
A potential fit with the Blue Jays is easy enough to see — particularly after the team traded Teoscar Hernandez to the Mariners. Signing Bellinger would allow the Jays to slide George Springer from center field to right field while simultaneously adding a left-handed bat to help balance out an extremely right-handed lineup. The 2021-22 version of Bellinger is a major step down from Hernandez offensively, but the Jays would be a better defensive club with this alignment, and the obvious hope would be that a change of scenery would help bring Bellinger’s offense back up closer to its prior heights — even if a full rebound is probably too optimistic.