SAN DIEGO —
Five years ago, he was the National League Rookie of the Year. Three years ago, he was the NL Most Valuable Player. And even amid prolonged struggles in the couple of seasons since then, he had remained a fixture in the lineup and favorite among much of the fan base.
In recent years, few players have had a bigger presence among the Dodgers than center fielder Cody Bellinger.
But on Tuesday, less than three weeks after he was non-tendered by the team and became a free agent, the slugger’s roller-coaster tenure in Los Angeles ended.
Bellinger agreed to terms on a one-year contract with the Chicago Cubs, multiple people with knowledge of the situation told The Times’ Jorge Castillo.
The deal is worth $17.5 million guaranteed — he’ll have a salary of $12 million next season, then a $5.5 million buyout if a mutual option for 2024 isn’t picked up, which is the likely outcome — making it just slightly less lucrative than the $18 million-plus Bellinger was projected to receive through arbitration had the Dodgers tendered him a contract last month.
“Obviously when we made the decision with Cody a few weeks ago,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said during the second day of the league’s winter meetings, “we knew that this was a possibility.”
Indeed, the news didn’t come as a major surprise.
Though the Dodgers had maintained interest in bringing Bellinger back next season, a reunion always seemed unlikely once he hit the open market.
According to Bellinger’s agent, Scott Boras, the outfielder garnered interest from “11 to 12” teams. He received multiple offers for more than one season, although preferred a one-year deal that could allow him to rebuild his stock and test free agency again a year from now. And in the end, the bidding for his services ultimately surpassed what the Dodgers were willing to spend.
Bellinger will now look for a fresh start in Chicago — while the Dodgers will explore ways to replace the latest member of last year’s team to depart in free agency.
“Things are going to look a little different,” manager Dave Roberts said during a news conference with reporters.
Already this offseason, the Dodgers lost two starting pitchers from last year’s rotation: Tyler Anderson, who signed last month with the Angels; and Andrew Heaney, who on Tuesday reportedly agreed to a two-year, $25-million deal with the Texas Rangers (which could rise to $37 million with incentives).
Their bullpen has also suffered a couple of key defections over the last week in Chris Martin, who joined the Red Sox on a two-year, $17.5-million deal; and Tommy Kahnle, who reportedly agreed on Tuesday to a two-year, $11.5-million contract with the New York Yankees.
More change could be on the horizon, too, with longtime third baseman Justin Turner continuing to linger on the free-agent market.
To this point, however, no departure has been more stark than Bellinger’s. He will leave a hole in center field that Friedman and Roberts said the team plans to address with an addition this offseason.
“There’s some interesting players in the market that we’re continuing to have conversations about,” Friedman said. “So from our standpoint, we would like to augment our group.”
To that end, the Dodgers will have plenty of options to consider. After Aaron Judge — who remained unsigned as of Tuesday night despite a retracted report he was headed to the San Francisco Giants — Brandon Nimmo and Andrew Benintendi headline this year’s class of outfielders. Less-expensive options such as Michael Conforto or Kevin Kiermaier might make sense, as well.
Internally, James Outman is the team’s most MLB-ready outfield prospect, although he might first be eased in as more of a part-time platoon player. Fellow prospect Miguel Vargas spent time in left field last year, but likely will see increased playing time at either second or third base next year.
Still, it was only a few years ago that Bellinger was expected to be a cornerstone of the franchise. In his first four seasons, he had a .911 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, belted 123 home runs and was twice selected an All-Star. He won a Gold Glove, was named a Silver Slugger and provided some of the most memorable moments during the club’s run to the 2020 World Series title.
It was during that postseason, however, that Bellinger injured his shoulder during a celebration with Kiké Hernández, requiring him to get labrum surgery during the offseason.
He’s looked nothing like his old self since, batting just .193 with 29 home runs in the last two years.
Boras thinks this winter could be a turning point for his client. He insisted that Bellinger is finally rebuilding strength in his shoulder. He also confirmed that Bellinger also recently trained at Oklahoma State’s baseball facility, where former big leaguer and Boras client Matt Holliday is a volunteer assistant coach.
“This offseason has been great for him,” Boras said. “He’s feeling much different than he did at the end of last season.”
And now, it will include a change of scenery, as well — one that further shakes up what is fast becoming an increasingly transformative offseason for a team that won a franchise-record 111 games during the regular season, but only once in the playoffs.
“Our goal is to put together a championship ballclub,” Roberts said. “That doesn’t change.”