What will the Dodgers do with Cody Bellinger?

LAS VEGAS — Of all the questions the Dodgers have to answer this offseason, this one might be the most challenging.

What to make of Cody Bellinger?

A Rookie of the Year (2017) and an MVP (2019) in his first three seasons as a big-leaguer, Bellinger has devolved into one of the weakest hitters in the National League in the three seasons that have followed.

That regression picked up steam in 2021 and 2022 following shoulder surgery in fall of 2020 and a significant leg injury early in 2021. OPS-plus is a statistic that tries to measure a player against his peers, 100 being league average. Bellinger has been seriously underwater each of the past two seasons (44 in 2021, 78 last year).

Nonetheless, Bellinger’s early achievements have increased his salary. He made $17 million last year while batting .210 with a .654 OPS. He is in his final year of arbitration eligibility this winter and will likely get an equivalent salary (if not higher) in 2023.

Unless …

The Dodgers have until Friday to tender him a contract for 2023. If they decide they can no longer absorb his offensive regression at that price, they could make him a non-tendered free agent.

“We still very much believe in Belli’s ability and we got to see first hand how hard he worked throughout the season,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said at the GM Meetings. “Obviously, he’d be the first to tell you that it was below the expectations that he has for himself. Right now, I know he’s working with our guys and doing everything he can to put himself in position to be a real force for us next year.

“We still have time to work through what everything looks like.”

Bellinger’s agent, Scott Boras, was dismissive of the possibility that the Dodgers might make Bellinger a non-tendered free agent this winter, saying that decision is not within his purview. But he added a cautionary statement.

“Talents are so hard to find,” Boras said.

Bellinger’s athletic talent is undeniable. A Gold Glove winner in 2019, he has remained an excellent defender. And he is one of the Dodgers’ fastest baserunners.

But, his hitting … oh, his hitting.

For the second consecutive winter, the Dodgers and Boras alike point to Bellinger’s recent injuries as a leading cause of his offensive regression.

“I think it’s about health and strength,” Boras said. “We know he’s a five-tool player, an MVP type. Unfortunately, he got hurt in that World Series (separating his shoulder while celebrating a home run with Kiké Hernandez in 2020). You had COVID in between that. You had interrupted elements. So to get him a really, really solid offseason to get his strength back (will help).

“You gotta remember this guy is an amazing defender, a great baserunner, a hugely accurate throwing arm, can play Gold Glove first base and center field. You just don’t find talents like this. He’s 26, 27 years old. It’s really about getting his strength back so he can repeat his skill level.”

The Dodgers agree that the shoulder surgery that followed the 2020 World Series could have changed Bellinger’s strength and range of motion in the front side of his swing. The hairline leg fracture he suffered in April 2021 also seems to have affected the way he uses the lower half of his body during his swing.

And last year’s lockout prevented the Dodgers from working with Bellinger on his strength or his swing during the offseason. That isn’t the case this year and Friedman said Bellinger has been “talking through things” with the team’s hitting coaches as well as the strength and performance staff.

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“I think it’s always easier in the offseason than it is in season,” Friedman said. “In an alternate universe of no lockout last year, would it have played out differently? I don’t know the answer. But at least do as much as we can over the offseason. His desire and willingness to attack it is not a question at all in my mind.”

The real question remains whether the Dodgers are willing to wager millions of dollars on Bellinger’s ability to reverse his offensive decline.

“From a talent and work ethic standpoint, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be able to,” Friedman said.

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