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Cody Bellinger wants a one-year deal — the Guardians should give it to him

Come rehab your free agent value on the sunny shores of Lake Erie, Mr. Bellinger

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Colorado Rockies v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

Cody Bellinger wants to bet on himself.

On Sunday his agent, Scott Boras, said as much. There’s little intention to sign a multi-year deal after the Dodgers non-tendered him. From a recent Ken Rosenthal article on The Athletic, Boras’ quotes signal his plan for his client clear as day.

“I’ve already been offered multi-years,” Boras said Sunday, two days after the Dodgers declined to tender Bellinger a contract for 2023. “Most likely, because of his age, we don’t want a multi-year.”

Now, keep in mind it’s Scott Boras. Maybe Bellinger received multi-year offers, maybe he didn’t — Boras isn’t going to say anything different either way. He’s going to try and pump up the value for his client and make him seem like a hot commodity and not a former MVP who was just non-tendered and needs a team more than most teams need him. That’s his job.

The one thing that is clear, however, is that Bellinger is not ready to make his first big free-agent splash as a 27-year-old coming off a pair of miserable seasons in which he had a 47 wRC+ (2021) and an 83 wRC+ (2022). He wants to take the Marcus Semien route, who had a much less dramatic dip in 2020 following an excellent 2019 season, signed a one-year “bet on yourself” deal with the Blue Jays in 2021, and then cashed in with $175 million in Texas last offseason. Bellinger has the benefit of just entering his prime; if he can prove in a one-year deal that his struggles have been injury related, not a declining skillset, he could easily eclipse the payday that Semien received.

Of course, the Guardians aren’t about to pay him for that big megadeal anytime soon. We can argue about if they could or should but would is the only one that matters in the end. And they won’t. But what they can do is provide him with that launching pad into the megadeal. Even a front office/ownership group as thrifty as the Guardians can live by the mantra of “there’s no bad one-year deal.”

I’m not going to take Boras strictly on his word that Bellinger’s recent struggles have been only injury related, but he has definitely been injured. Since Sept. 2020, when the wheels really started to fall off, Bellinger has missed time due to various injuries six times (and once with a non-COVID illness):

  • May 2022: Leg
  • May 2022: Illness
  • Sept. 2021: Rib
  • July 2021: Hamstring
  • June 2021: Hamstring
  • April 2021: Calf
  • Sept. 2020: Lat strain

The concern here is that so many of them were the same body part. It’s one thing if a guy hits his shoulder off a wall, missteps on a base to sprain his ankle, breaks his finger on a base, and gets the flu once, but Bellinger has repeatedly missed time due to his legs. You need those to play baseball. If it’s the same injury flaring up again and again, it’s might not stop.

But if his poor play in 2021 and 2022 were truly because of the injuries and he’s fully healthy going in 2023? He could be the second coming of Austin Jackson’s magical season in Cleveland, or even better. It’s not like his production has been a steady death, either. He went straight from being an MVP at the top of the charts in 2019 to a guy who maybe had some rough luck in a small sample in 2020, to straight garbage in 2021 and 2022. Something clearly happened.

The injury risks are big, of course, but you don’t get a shot at a potential All-Star looking for a cheap one-year deal without some kind of risk. He’s not a perfect fit in Cleveland, but it’s a fit that I think could benefit everyone involved. So let’s break it down that way.

Why it works for the Guardians

The play here for the Guardians is simple: you’re gambling on an MVP returning to form in his prime. While his offense has vanished in the last couple of seasons, Bellinger recorded a 161 wRC+ and 47 home runs in his MVP season just three years ago. He walked (14.4%) almost more than he struck out (16.4%) and was a force at the plate for the NL Pennant-winning Dodgers. Even if he can only amount to his 2020 season (.239/.333/.455, 12 HR, 112 wRC+), he could still be among the better hitters in Cleveland’s lineup.

Bellinger has played the majority of defensive innings at center field (2925.1) and he’s a damn good one, but that position is already locked up for the time being by Myles Straw. He’s got at least four more years on his deal and earned a Gold Glove. He’s not going anywhere for a guy on a one-year deal.

The thing is, Bellinger also has experience at first base and right field — two positions the Guardians could use help at. Oscar Gonzalez and Josh Naylor, the presumed incumbents at those positions, could slide over to DH, where they are probably better suited anyway. It’d be nice if Bellinger could learn to hit right-handed to also take some at-bats against lefties away from Naylor, but if we’re betting on MVP Bellinger returning, he won’t be platooning anyway.

Even as Bellinger’s bat slipped, he still maintained his speed and effective defense — two things we know the Guardians covet.

The Guardians have also been down a similar road before when they acquired Josh Donaldson, another former MVP, in 2018. He, too, was plagued by leg injuries and declining production ahead of the trade. He went from a 151 wRC+ in 2017 to 104 with Toronto before he hit the injured list and was ultimately traded a year later.

I’d argue that was even riskier as it required a player in return (Julian Merryweather went to Toronto) and Donaldson was coming straight off the IL into the lineup of a playoff-bound team. Meanwhile, the Guardians will have full access to Bellinger and his process of getting game-ready leading up to Opening Day all for the cost of cold hard cash.

Donaldson might have disappeared in the playoffs, but down the stretch, he went 14-for-50 with three doubles and three home runs (150 wRC+), so it wasn’t a completely failed experiment by any means. At the very least, not enough to deter them from trying again.

Why it works for Cody Bellinger

If the Guardians are interested in Cody Bellinger, this is probably the bigger hurdle to acquiring him. Plenty of other teams are going to try and sign him on a one-year deal, probably some that are also willing to dangle an extension or free-agent deal after the season if he’s great in 2023.

No matter where Bellinger plays, he’s going to want to be on a winning team. Right now, that’s the Guardians. He would get to be part of a fun, young clubhouse that is one cohesive unit. I bet José Ramírez would let him play Mario Kart. Who doesn’t want to headbutt Josh Naylor?

In right field he would have Straw covering most of center field for him, potentially letting him look better in right field with less ground to cover. If he plays first base, he’s got an infield of (mostly) accurate arms to make for some smooth outs and little headache. The balanced schedule will reduce the number of times it happens, but he’ll also still get plenty of opportunities to beat up on Tigers/Royals/Twins pitching to beef up those offensive numbers.

Another big one could be the Guardians’ hitting coach.

When Chris Valaika joined the Guardians last offseason, he brought with him a reputation of working with veteran bats that needed a boost. If Valaika and the rest of the Guardians front office identify something with Bellinger’s swing — injury-related or not — their pitch could be that they can help fix him up for that big contract next offseason.

Publicly, Bellinger and his agent will play it up like nothing is actually wrong. But if there is an issue, there’s no pile of money at the end of the tunnel without fixing it first. Valaika and the Guardians could be better suited to help him fix it than most.

Why it might not work, and in conclusion

As I said, this isn’t a perfect fit. If the Guardians are determined that Straw is their center fielder and that’s that, Bellinger might opt to go somewhere else to beef up his value as a true center fielder in free agency next year.

I also admit this is a very “it’s not my money so who cares” opinion to pay a guy millions of dollars with the chances that you have to just cut him if it doesn’t work out, but it’s true. Bellinger is out of major-league options, so if he comes up and stinks up the place, the Guards are going to be left to either let him work through it or footing a big bill just to release him. Think about the Carlos González debacle from 2019 turned up to a million (or several million).

But if it works they have a tremendous bat in their lineup for a year at a steep discount.