Three years ago, it sure seemed like, come the end of next season, there would be no bigger free agent in the world than Cody Bellinger. In 2019, Bellinger had a face-melter of a season, putting up a 1.035 OPS, playing an excellent center field (as well as many other positions) and winning the National League MVP … all in his age-23 season. It looked like he was going to be a Dodgers Hall of Famer at some point.
But a lot has happened since that 2019 season. Bellinger was good in the shortened 2020 season rather than great, and, quite famously, separated his shoulder while celebrating a massive NLCS Game 7 homer. That led to two seasons of shoulder problems and a shocking collapse in production: In 2021, his OPS was nearly half of what it was in 2019. That led to the Dodgers deciding not to tender Bellinger a contract last week as opposed to possibly paying him close to $20 million in his final year of salary arbitration, making him a free agent right when he’s supposed to be in his prime.
Bellinger’s agent, Scott Boras, has said he wants Bellinger to sign a one-year, make-good deal, to show he’s fully healthy and back to his old self, before theoretically signing a bigger deal next offseason. That puts a ton of teams on the table as potential bidders for his services. Though a multi-year deal probably isn’t off the table, either.
So, let’s rank ‘em! Here are your most likely Bellinger suitors, in what is quietly one of the most intriguing free agent sweepstakes of this whole offseason.
1. Blue Jays
Ever since they traded Teoscar Hernández to the Mariners, most of baseball has been waiting for the Blue Jays to bring in another outfielder. While Brandon Nimmo has been the hot rumor, Bellinger makes a ton of sense too. He, like Nimmo, would move George Springer out of center field, and he’s a left-handed hitter for a team that’s heavily right-handed. And doesn’t his swing look like one that would be perfect for launching moon shots deep into the Canada night? If the Blue Jays don’t get Nimmo, Bellinger is an obvious next step.
Clearly, Aaron Judge is the first priority. But if he ends up staying with the Yankees (or signing elsewhere), Bellinger isn’t a bad second option. He’s a better center fielder than anything they have now, he’d surely send plenty of baseballs into McCovey Cove and putting him in a Giants uniform is a great way to annoy Dodgers fans. All told: Even if they get Judge, they should go after Bellinger too. They need offense: If he’s close to what he was, he’s an instant upgrade.
Well, we know he likes hitting at Globe Life Field: That is where he hit the homer that led to the dislocated shoulder, after all. But the Rangers would love to have him too, as a big-name, one-time MVP who would be an upgrade in center field and would add a bat to a lineup that could probably use three or four more.
First off, the Bleacher Creatures would absolutely love him at Wrigley. But this is about more than aesthetic fit. The Cubs seems to have some money to spend but might want to wait another year or two to make a splash on a free agent hitter. They also have a clear need for hitting. Bellinger could play center field -- or first base, really -- and bat in the middle of the order, giving him every opportunity to rebuild his value around baseball in one of the most high-profile situations in the sport. And the Cubs make sense as a multi-year play too, if Bellinger’s up for that. Seriously, he’d look so great in that uniform.
The Mets might be loath to give him too many years, but as a one-year deal, you’d have to think they could outbid just about anybody. He could potentially replace Nimmo in center field (if he signs elsewhere), but more to the point, he’d provide them with some pop that they sorely need. And if it goes as well as some think it might, the Mets would be extremely well positioned to give him the long-term deal he wants … maybe even before the season is over.
6. White Sox
They might want to just let their No. 2 prospect, Oscar Colas, take up a spot in the outfield with Luis Robert and Eloy Jiménez, but if they’re not ready to do that, Bellinger would make a nice one-year bridge -- not to mention that he’d add some depth, especially since Robert and Jiménez have had a tendency to get injured.
After dealing Harrison Bader at the Trade Deadline last year, the Cardinals don’t have an obvious center fielder. Dylan Carlson is the likely Opening Day starter right now, and while the Cardinals aren’t likely to give up on him just yet, their outfield isn’t nearly as settled as their infield right now. They also are cautious of long-term deals, which could keep them in the running. Still, though: This would be a little out of character for the Cardinals, and for a hitter who wants to show he can smash a lot of homers, Busch Stadium is a tough place to pad those slugging numbers.
8. Red Sox
It’s sort of unclear what the Red Sox are going to do at all this offseason, but if they gear up for an AL East run, Bellinger would be a nice short-term solution to their center field issue. Also, it’s a move very much of a recent Red Sox vintage: A headline-maker that probably doesn’t move the needle all that much.
It doesn’t seem entirely off the table, does it? Bellinger might not be eager to return to a team that just non-tendered him, but if the market isn’t as large as we think it might be for him, maybe the Dodgers give him one more year at a lower price than what he would have gotten in arbitration. Seems like a thin chance, though.
Other potential possibilities: Astros, Marlins, Padres, Rays, Rockies