Cody Bellinger, center fielder for the Colorado Rockies.
It has an interesting ring to it.
A notable player coming from a premier team to find his way in Denver – and not the other way around – would be nothing short of a shocker.
Yet, those odds drastically increased last Friday when Bellinger was non-tendered by the Los Angeles Dodgers and made a completely unencumbered free agent at the age of 27.
Before creating a scenario in which Colorado signs the former National League MVP, let’s recognize that Bellinger is not the same player that received 19 first-place votes and 362 points in 2019 to become the 18th Rookie of the Year to also win the MVP Award.
No, Bellinger has been something else since that pinnacle of his early career.
He was fine during the pandemic-shortened 2020 (1.1 bWAR or 3.0 bWAR for 162-game season at the same rate), but opposing teams adjusted to him much better than the inverse. More ground balls came off his bat, but he was hardly more prone to striking out in 2019.
Much of that 60-game campaign was played with a dislocated shoulder. Then, he reaggravated it whilst celebrating during the National League Championship Series, and it’s been all downhill from there.
Surgery that offseason repaired the injury, but the Bellinger that came out of that operating room was not the same one that hit .305 with 47 home runs and 117 runs batted in for the 106-win Dodgers in 2019.
Which brings us to Friday and Los Angeles parting ways with the outfielder and first baseman in his final year of club control that would have earned him somewhere in the neighborhood of $18 million for his fourth year of arbitration.
Despite being somewhat damaged goods, teams are still showing interest in the Chandler, AZ native. Jim Bowden even reported that at least five teams reached out to Bellinger in the first hour he was non-tendered.
Colorado has interest in Bellinger, according to Patrick Saunders of the Denver Post. It’s easy to see why since there are a few reasons why the two would make for a handsome pair. And a few reasons why they would not.
Cody & Colorado Make Sense
On a notepad lodged in the far-too cluttered junk drawer in the Rockies’ kitchen is a list of things to do for the offseason.
Underlined, circled and highlighted atop that list is finding a potent left-handed bat for the outfield.
A line branches off from that note with Brandon Nimmo’s name written. A few hearts and smiley faces are met with a series of dollar signs to show the effects of his market.
Nimmo will not come cheap. He’s a left-handed hitter who can play center field and hit at the top of the lineup in the first year the shift is banned and, thus, no longer penalizing hitters of his handedness. He’s a great fit for Colorado, but a more vital fit for clubs a lot closer to winning a championship.
He’s seen the kind of money his former club, the New York Mets, shells out for players of his caliber. Even as a Wyoming native raised on Rockies baseball, he’s not likely to give a home-region discount.
Other teams have similar needs around Major League Baseball, and Colorado may not be willing to keep up with the Joneses when it comes to a bidding war. Dick Monfort may have money to spend, but not money to blow.
In walks Cody Bellinger.
He hits from the left-side just like Nimmo. He can play center field quite well, too.
Forget his flaws at the plate over the last two seasons, like striking out 27% of the time or a negative WPA (Win Probability Added), if you’re into the latter statistic.
Defensively, Bellinger is safely in the above average range when examining his spring speed, outfielder jump and arm strength.
A Gold Glove Award winner in 2019, a review of his current work fares well when compared to the 2022 NL Gold Glove Award Finalists for center field: Victor Robles, Trent Grisham and Alek Thomas.
The Fielding Bible had all three ahead of Bellinger according to its Defensive Runs Saved. Outs Above Average, calculated by StatCast, ranked Bellinger as being tied for third-most in the entire Senior Circuit, behind the leader Grisham, tied with Thomas and just ahead of Robles. The defensive metric used by FanGraphs puts Bellinger behind Robles by just a fraction with Grisham ahead and Thomas behind.
It may be hard to say he’s better defensively than the only other left-handed hitting center fielder on the free agent market, Kevin Kiermaier, but the former three-time Gold Glove Award winner with the Tampa Bay Rays is on the wrong side of 30 years old with his best two seasons combined not even touching what Bellinger has shown in one.
Besides, for a player who can use his glove as a paintbrush, the green expanse of Coors Field outfield is the largest canvas on which a defensive artist can create.
That downturn in productivity, is it really all due to the shoulder injury?
There’s no clear indicator that the right shoulder issue that has seemed to plague him has actually passed. In fact, it may not even be the issue his agent Scott Boras wants it to seem.
The 27-year-old played 144 games this past campaign with zero trips to the IL in 2022. He played the fourth-most amount of innings for any center fielder and ninth-most of any outfielder in the sport.
Even his three stints on the injured list in 2021 that limited him to 95 games make no mention of a shoulder problem: left calf contusion, left hamstring tightness and left rib fracture.
Finally, we can discuss his issues at the plate.
The strikeout rate are way up since 2020. His max exit velocity and hard hit percentage are both near the lower third of big leaguers. He’s chasing pitches out of the zone and not doing enough damage against four-seam fastballs.
That being said, he still produces offensively better than a replacement level talent, according to Baseball-Reference.
His slash line of .210/.265/.389 suggests something much lower than that, which is probably why FanGraphs views him as being just below replacement level at the plate.
Either way, for a player entering his age-28 season with above average defensive abilities and a 40-plus homer season on his resume – one that includes an MVP only three years ago – it doesn’t take a lot of squinting to see getting positive value from Bellinger in 2023.
At what cost is the next logical question.
His salary was the reason the Dodgers cut bait last week. At league minimum, you’re ecstatic to roll Bellinger out there every day. At $6 million, you still feel really good that his defense is more than giving you a good return on what he’s being paid. At his projected $18 million price tag, it’s very hard to justify there’s any surplus value whatsoever.
That being said, Colorado would still need to pony up somewhere near $15 million for his services.
Too much? No. There’s no such thing as a bad one year contract, someone once said, and then everyone parroted.
Bellinger is not interested in signing for more than one-year, nor should he be. That will become more clear in a moment.
If he can regain even half his 2019 form, the Rockies will have quite a talent on their hands to push for the third Wild Card. Or, should they find themselves out of the playoff hunt in late-July, a valuable trade chip.
Teams would line up to acquire his defense and newly revived left-handed bat, especially given a track record of clutch performance in the postseason thanks to his six-consecutive Octobers with the Dodgers that includes nine home runs, an NLCS MVP and one World Series ring.
Bellinger would get a chance at winning his first championship in a full-length, 162-game season before seeking his next deal back on top of his game. Only he, Ian Happ and Harrison Bader will be outfield options to reach free agency under the age of 30 next offseason.
Seems like a match made in LoDo. So what’s the problem?
Bellinger has more to gain elsewhere
Name the last established big leaguer to come to Colorado and have his career take an upturn?
Go ahead. I’ll wait… a while.
Long before the humidor and the Bridich Barrier, the Rockies had a good run of helping players revitalize their careers.
Andrés Galarraga was coming off the heels of two consecutive injury-filled seasons entering his age-32 campaign following his tenure as an offensive force with the Montreál Expos in the late-1980’s.
A reunion with Don Baylor at Mile High Stadium in 1993 rejuvenated the Big Cat for an additional 11-more seasons which included three additional All-Star appearances.
Similar story for players like Dante Bichette and Vinny Castilla.
Since then, we haven’t seen that same boost.
The Rockies track record in free agency has not been great. Hitters or pitchers. Many of their best assets have been homegrown talents thanks to their draft and develop philosophy (Troy Tulowitzki, Nolan Arenado, Brendan Rodgers) or players acquired during the earliest stages of their big league careers (Brian Fuentes, Carlos González, DJ LeMahieu).
Knowing this track record as well as Boras knows it, placing his client in Denver may not exactly improve Bellinger’s value.
Neither Boras nor Bellinger wants a multi-year deal. Neither does any wise team in MLB.
Either you pay Bellinger for a second year when there’s no guarantee he’ll even bring value to the first year or Bellinger is stuck playing a second slate of games at a discounted rate when he could have been a free agent after this season.
Put that aside for a moment and imagine Bellinger has gotten himself right. He’s in a good place physically and knows full well he’s going to prove the doubters wrong. “If the Dodgers can’t fix him, no one can.”
Coors Field can fix players, sometimes, in some cases.
Bellinger has some good memories there. He’s produced to the tune of a .924 OPS in the House That Monfort Built, highest of any ballpark in which he’s played at least 10 games.
Most of the heavy lifting came before his issues these past two seasons, but we can conveniently ignore that. Or the play which was a harbinger of things to come on Opening Day 2021.
Let’s imagine the shoulder is fine and that next season will be better than good, regardless of which team he signs.
GM Bill Schmidt would still need to overcome a few large obstacles.
Every player that leaves Coors Field invariably has the home-road splits held against them in free agency. The Coors Hangover becomes more of a talking point than an actual issue, but the impact does effect the conversation when negotiating a contract.
No agent wants that for their client. Not even a super agent like Belli’s.
In addition, if Boras does convince his client to become Blake Street Bellinger, there’s a very real chance that the Rockies could put a qualifying offer on him and, once again, tamp down negotiations for his next contract.
What about this compromise: Colorado deals him at the trade deadline and the QO cannot be placed on him. Both parties will feel quite good about how their relationship turned out for themselves, especially as the Rockies improve the future of their franchise while Bellinger reaps a few extra bucks without having to hear about the loss of draft picks from his new suitor.
How many games back of the final Wild Card would the Rockies need to be for that? And could Boras and Bellinger reach some kind of agreement with Colorado to sign off on a trade if they’re, say, five games back of a playoff spot on July 31? If other teams learned of this arrangement, would that result in somewhat insulting offers that cut down on the Rockies return?
It’s all a bit convoluted. Certainly more than it needs to be. But that might be what it takes to acquire a player with this potential.
Unfortunately, unless the team is in the midst of a dynasty or outstanding run of .500 or better seasons, it’s always going to be a challenge to bring in free agents of any kind to Colorado.
It’s for that reason, even in this instance when the player’s value has taken such a hit over what it once was just a few years ago, Bellinger may look to go elsewhere when he finally puts pen to paper.
Until he does, there’s a chance the Rockies may have found the piece they desire most this offseason.