Would former Dodgers star Bellinger be right fit for Giants? originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea
SAN FRANCISCO -- During the 2021 season, as he watched Cody Bellinger take early batting practice at Oracle Park, a member of the Giants staff talked of the adjustments he would try and make if he could work with Bellinger, who at the time was struggling to push past offseason shoulder surgery. Bellinger never found his old form that year and in 2022 he wasn't much better, leading to a surprising result on Friday for a young outfielder who was the NL MVP just three years ago.
The Dodgers non-tendered Bellinger, who was due about $18 million in his third year of arbitration. While president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman later told reporters he would like to bring Bellinger back at a lower number, the outfielder, for the first time in his career, is now free to negotiate with 29 other teams.
At the moment, Bellinger is a deeply flawed hitter. He also checks off a lot of boxes for Farhan Zaidi and the Giants front office.
This group has always been drawn to past pedigree, and some of Zaidi's most notable success stories have been with high draft picks and former top prospects. That was part of the equation in signing Kevin Gausman, and the Giants placed a big bet last season that there was more in the tank for Carlos Rodón, once the third overall pick in the draft. From hits like Darin Ruf to misses like Alex Blandino, the Giants have often bet on players who were first-rounders or tore through the minors much earlier in their careers.
Zaidi also has had success with former Dodgers, most notably Joc Pederson and Donovan Solano, an infielder he knew from their Triple-A system. He was the general manager in Los Angeles when Bellinger won the Rookie of the Year Award in 2017, hitting 39 homers as a 21-year-old.
Zaidi is not the only Giant with connections to Bellinger. Gabe Kapler was the Dodgers' farm director as Bellinger was coming through the minors, and Pederson and Alex Wood are former teammates.
The fit here is not because of connections, though.
At every opportunity, the Giants have said publicly and privately that one of their main goals this offseason is to get better defensively and more athletic up the middle. Bellinger ranked in the 92nd percentile in Outs Above Average last season and what the Giants saw in their matchups with the Dodgers matched the metrics. He is above-average defensively in center field and he has also been a good first baseman in the past, which would appeal to a staff that loves defensive versatility and likely will go into next season without Brandon Belt.
If the Giants are not able to lure Aaron Judge, putting Bellinger in center field would allow them to move Mike Yastrzemski and Austin Slater back to the corners and turn outfield defense from a liability to a strength.
Of course, there's a reason the Dodgers -- who can afford anyone -- decided Bellinger was not worth the going rate.
Since winning the MVP Award in 2019, Bellinger has hit .203 with a .648 OPS and 41 homers in more than 1,100 plate appearances. As tempting as it is to imagine him putting one in the gap at Oracle Park and legging out doubles and triples with his above-average speed, he has swung and missed too often in recent years to even make that a likely possibility.
Bellinger struck out 150 times last season and there's not a lot in his batted-ball profile that indicates better days are ahead. He ranked in the bottom half of the league in hard-hit percentage and the bottom fifth in expected slugging percentage.
The team that signs Bellinger this winter will be betting that he is stronger with more time away from his 2020 shoulder surgery, which came after he injured himself during a postseason celebration. The bet would also be on a team's hitting coaches and analytics staff, and while the Giants are supremely confident in their ability to get the most out of hitters, the Dodgers do it better than anybody and they just gave up on Bellinger.
The 27-year-old likely won't come cheap, either. Bellinger is a Scott Boras client, and at the GM Meetings earlier this month, Boras called Bellinger a "five-tool player" who has been slowed by the injury and Covid interruptions.
"This guy is an amazing defender, a great baserunner, a hugely accurate throwing arm, he can play Gold Glove first base and center field. You just don't find talents like this at 26, 27 years old," Boras said. "It's really about getting his strength back so he can repeat his skill level."
According to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, Bellinger is likely to sign a one-year deal and get back on the market next offseason, which should appeal to the Giants, who have repeatedly gone that route with pitchers who come with red flags. If the salary is significant, there would be a lot of risk for a front office that just guaranteed Pederson nearly $20 million, still has Yastrzemski, LaMonte Wade Jr. and Luis Gonzalez on the roster, and has other holes to fill.
The upside is there, though, and if Bellinger gets anywhere close to his old form at the plate, someone may have the bargain of the offseason. At the very least, he's an elite defender at a position of need for the Giants, and that's enough to make him very interesting as they pursue ways to make a splash this offseason.