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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: Cody Bellinger

Once one of the league’s shining stars, Cody Bellinger was non-tendered by the Dodgers on Friday.

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MLB: NLDS-San Diego Padres at Los Angeles Dodgers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s wind the clock back to the good ol’ days of 2017. When we look back on that year, Aaron Judge dominates the scene, and for good reason. He easily won the Home Run Derby, set the record for most home runs by a rookie, won the Rookie of the Year Award, and finished runner-up for the AL MVP. But while Judge was dominating headlines in the American League and on the East coast, his National League counterpart on the West Coast, Cody Bellinger, was also announcing his arrival. With a 39-home run season in which he slashed .267/.352/.581 while splitting time between first base and left field, the then-21-year-old looked to be the next great Dodgers star.

As much as I loved Judge even then, I assumed that, due to his young age, Bellinger would be the player more likely to have a Hall of Fame career. And indeed, for the first three years of their careers, that looked to be the case. While Judge occasionally struggled to stay on the field despite strong production, Bellinger put up 11.3 fWAR and 13 Outs Above Average across 2018-19 (11th among hitters), earning him the 2019 National League MVP and both a Silver Slugger and Gold Glove.

Then came 2020, and everything changed. Bellinger’s pandemic-shortened season was a definite step back, as his wRC+ dropped from 161 in 2019 to 112. Things only got worse from there, however. First, he underwent surgery in November 2020 to repair his right shoulder, which he had repeatedly injured through his career (most recently while celebrating a home run in the NLCS). In April 2021, he fractured his leg while colliding with Reymin Guduan; then, in September, he fractured a rib after a collision with Gavin Lux. Between these injuries, he was the second-worst worst hitter in baseball, slashing just .165/.240/.302; his 44 wRC+ was better than only Jackie Bradley Jr.

Bellinger’s 2022 was better, pretty much by default. He slashed just .210/.265/.389 with 19 home runs and 27 doubles, good for a 83 wRC+. While a definitive improvement, it’s not starter-worthy, and certainly not worth the $18 million or so that he would receive in arbitration, leading to the Dodgers non-tendering him on Friday and allowing him to hit free agency a year early.

At the moment, the Yankees’ outfield currently consists of Aaron Hicks, Harrison Bader, and Giancarlo Stanton, with utilityman Oswaldo Cabrera also capable of manning the corners. Brian Cashman has said that the team currently does not have a left fielder or a right fielder on the roster, suggesting that the team prefers not to use either Stanton or Cabrera as the starter in the outfield. Even assuming that Judge returns to the fold, the Yankees will need another outfielder capable of playing the corners, and it’s tempting to think about a certain lefty power stroke in Yankee Stadium.

Could Bellinger fill one of those roles for the Yankees? The short answer is, “No.” The long answer is, “Noooooooo.” After watching left field be a black hole over the last two years, I just don’t see the Yankees rolling with a hitter in the starting lineup who hit worse in 2021 and 2022 than Joey Gallo did while in pinstripes. While you could excuse one bad year and hope for a bounce back, at this point, Bellinger has not looked like a starting-caliber player since 2020 and has not been an impact player since 2019.

That said, even if his bat never returns, Bellinger could be an impact player for the Yankees off the bench. He won a Gold Glove for his defensive prowess in right field in 2019, a season in which he accrued 18 Defensive Runs Saved and 6 Outs Above Average. After the Dodgers acquired Mookie Betts prior to the 2020 campaign, he shifted over to center field full-time, where he has been decisively above-average (4 DRS, 13 OAA) in that time. Both numbers represent a clear upgrade over both Judge (1 DRS, 1 OAA) and Hicks (-4 DRS, -1 OAA), the team’s two non-Bader center fielders in 2022.

On top of that, he’s played 1927 innings at first base over his career, allowing him to fill in as Anthony Rizzo’s backup — especially if DJ LeMahieu opens the season on the shelf due to his toe injury. By replacing Hicks (who is clearly envisioned as a fourth outfielder at best by the team, if not destined for a contract dump) with Bellinger, the Yankees would sacrifice a tiny amount with the bat (Hicks’ 90 wRC+ vs. Bellinger’s 83 wRC+ in 2022) for defensive versatility and a much better glove.

At the end of the day, I don’t foresee the Yankees and Bellinger coming together this winter. Somebody, likely a team on the border of contention, will give him a starting job in the hopes of unleashing at least some of the potential that made him one of the league’s biggest up-and-coming stars during his first three seasons. He’s reportedly looking for a one-year, make-good deal anyway. Even if Bellinger wanted to take a bench job instead, the Yankees would likely need to move Hicks first to clear a spot on the roster. If the stars were to align, however, Bellinger on the right deal could be the type of low-risk, high-reward addition that every team needs.