The path to finding a center fielder this offseason got a little more interesting for the Colorado Rockies after the Los Angeles Dodgers non-tendered former MVP Cody Bellinger last Friday. In the wake of the news, speculation ran rampant over the weekend about where Bellinger could end up, and the Rockies entered that conversation. A couple of weeks ago I talked about the prospect of Brandon Nimmo joining the team, so let’s talk about this alternate option that the Rockies may consider and if it makes sense.
Don’t worry, we’re going to address the interesting offensive journey of Bellinger, but first, let's talk about his glove.
2022 marked the first time in his big league career that Bellinger was a full-time center fielder. He has always been good defensively, including winning the Gold Glove in center field in 2019, and 2022 just helped cement that he is still a fantastic outfielder capable of handling the position day after day. Bellinger played the fourth most innings in all of baseball in center, and despite posting a big ole zero DRS, he was still one of the most effective center fielders.
His Outs Above Average of six finished third in the National League and fifth overall. His arm is still elite and his lengthy strides give him a decent range to chase down fly balls. He has a career 4.1 Ultimate Zone Rating in center field, so he is quite comfortable and would undoubtedly be a superior option over any of the current candidates already on the roster. The Rockies have not had a high-quality center fielder for quite some time and Bellinger wouldn’t be a bad glove to add to the vast acreage of Coors Field.
Now, we have to address the elephant in the room, Bellinger’s bat has degraded exponentially since his MVP season in 2019. After bursting onto the season to win the Rookie of the Year award in 2017 when he hit 39 home runs, Bellinger turned in a strong sophomore campaign in 2018 before having his best year in 2019. During that season he hit .305/.406/.629 with 47 home runs and 115 RBIs and also led the league in total bases (351).
However, injuries (including a fateful re-dislocation of his shoulder in the 2020 NLCS during a home run celebration) began to derail Bellinger’s offensive prowess as it diminished to low slash lines, lower power output and less luck when the ball is put in play. Bellinger’s 19 home runs and 68 RBI were his most since 2019 but he still struggled to a .210/.265/.389 line in 2022. The biggest problems stemmed from an increase in his strikeout numbers and lack of walks.
Last season Bellinger set a career high in strikeout rate (27.3%) and a career low in walk rate (6.9%) the latter of which has decreased by at least two whole points each season since his highest at 14.4% in 2019. His chase rate also was at a career high of 31.8% and had his third-highest whiff rate of 27.2%. His bat is a mere shadow of it’s former self, and it truly is a possible risk and liability but there is still a lot of good and potential for the bat to bounce back.
In terms of his plate discipline numbers found on FanGraphs, Bellinger’s plate vision and swing tendencies have been generally in line with his career numbers. His batted ball profile from 2022 is still in line with his career numbers. His launch angle and average exit velocity aren’t too different from his career nor is his hard hit rate or barrel rate. Nothing drastic sticks out, and yet he has struggled.
Doth the Bellinger Toll on Blake Street?
There are certainly mechanical things that he is doing that have thrown his production off balance that perhaps another team could help address or bring to the table and enhance. It seems far fetched that the Rockies could be the team to do that, but they could also surprise us and do it.
One of the best things for Bellinger is that he is still relatively young. At 27-years-old, he still has plenty of growth left in him in order to transform and change the trajectory of his career that started off so successfully but has no stumbled. He also needs to find a way to stay healthy and put the injuries behind him that have hindered him.
Rockies fans have had a front row seat of Bellinger finding success against the team, especially at Coors Field. In 46 games in Denver, Bellinger has a .289/.382/.542 line with seven home runs and 28 RBI. Those 28 runs are the most he has driven in at an opponent stadium and the second most home runs behind Petco Park.
His 48 hits are the most anywhere not named Dodger Stadium, so he is quite comfortable at Coors Field. Sure, some of that is probably the fact that Rockies pitching hasn’t been great against him, but he is the type of player that can hit line drives into the gaps and deposit balls into the seats.
There will be plenty of suitors for Bellinger and he is likely to favor a one-year deal so that he can re-enter the market next year and hope his stock is more fruitful. He earned $17 million in 2022 and the Dodgers were not willing to pay over that in arbitration. Bellinger could go for more on a one-year deal than what the Rockies are truly willing to pay and may not be the bargain they or other teams are hoping for. Is a contract over $10 million worth it for a one year resurrection project? Bellinger has some early history success, but also has baggage of shortcomings.
He is certainly worth a look if things work out, but for a player that is looking to rebound and build his stock, would Bellinger want to come to lowly team of the National League West and deal with the challenge of altitude and the failures of hitting on the road among other things?
Cody Bellinger is an interesting free agent the Rockies can consider for center field because he checks a lot of boxes, but the enigma of his offensive shortcomings in recent years muddies the water and casts doubt on what could have been a slam dunk signing.
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Brenton Doyle was one of the prospects added to the 40-man roster last week and Thomas Harding shines some light on the perspective the Rockies have on the player. They seem to value him quite a bit still and even contemplated calling him up for a debut near the end of last season.
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