If there’s one thing that isn’t going to go away this season, it’s folks speculating when Cody Bellinger will be called up to take over either left field or, far less likely, first base.
That’s understandable, seeing as Bellinger is slashing .360/.439/.740 with a 212 wRC+ and a 10.5 percent walk rate with the Oklahoma City Dodgers. He’s already a double-plus defender at first base and should be getting more time in the outfield as the season progresses. If he came up as an outfielder right now, he’d be an average defender in a corner and — at worst — fringe-average in center field.
Bellinger isn’t your typical first baseman. He’s athletic despite a 6’4, 210-pound frame. And let’s be honest, he’s probably closer to 220-225 pounds now after another year of physical maturation. He’s a physical monster and can run a bit. The profile is awfully intriguing and I understand why people want to see him in The Show sooner rather than later. I, as well as Eric Stephen and Molly Knight, was asked about Bellinger’s ETA yesterday.
— josejr (@j0sepe) April 19, 2017
Eric answered July, while I said September. I have my reasons, and they are as follows.
First, Bellinger is in his age-21 season. The only Dodger position player prospects to debut in their age-21 (or earlier) seasons in the last three decades are:
- Corey Seager, 2015
- Matt Kemp, 2006
- Joel Guzman, 2006
- Adrian Beltre, 1998 (Age-19 season)
- Paul Konerko, 1997
- Wilton Guerrero, 1996
- Roger Cedeno, 1995 (Age-20 season)
- Karim Garcia, 1995 (Age-19 season)
- Billy Ashley, 1992
- Dave Hansen, 1990
- Jose Offerman, 1990
- Jose Vizcaino, 1989
Note: Dioner Navarro played with the Dodgers in his age-21 season, but he actually debuted for the Yankees for five games in his age-20 season in 2005.
That’s quite the list. It’s also a list of players who actually didn’t contribute much in their debut seasons. The best player in terms of wRC+ and WAR is Seager, who had a 176 wRC+ and a 1.5 WAR in 27 games. He also started in the postseason that year. Beltre played in 77 games and produced a 75 wRC+ and a 0.2 WAR. Everyone else struggled to produce, mostly because the playing time wasn’t there and, well, because they were playing Major League Baseball at age 21 (or 19, in Beltre’s case).
It’s fair to say Seager was the best prospect (at their respective times) on this list. Beltre and Konerko were highly rated, but they were never rated No. 1 overall. To be fair, the only publication doing prospect rankings that far back was Baseball America, but Konerko and Beltre ranked second and third in 1998. Point being, Bellinger is a premium prospect, no doubt, but he isn’t on the level of a Beltre, Konerko or Seager. Those were the crème de la crème of prospects; Bellinger is in the next tier. That’s no disrespect to him, it speaks more about the seemingly can’t-miss level of prospect like that trio. So, to expect Bellinger to come up and automatically produce might be a little optimistic.
I’m as big a Bellinger fan as you’ll meet, and I think he’s going to be an offensive force in the majors. I just don’t see the need for the Dodgers to rush him (and there’s no evidence they’re going to). His swing is big. It’s pretty to look at, but it’s susceptible to missing pitches. He got exposed a little bit in Spring Training this year after hitting quite well in Arizona last year. Keeping him in the minors will help him learn the nuances of hitting and using what he has to his best advantage. Also, getting some more work at the top level of the minor leagues can only help.
Coming into this season, Bellinger had all of 12 Triple-A plate appearances and an additional 44 in the PCL playoffs. He’s at 57 this season for a grand total of 113. For comparison, Seager had 465 Triple-A plate appearances before he was promoted to the majors, and he was a more advanced hitter then than Bellinger is now.
So there’s definitely no guarantee he’ll hit enough to make us forget about the left field platoon or Adrian Gonzalez at first base. Left field and first base haven’t been strengths for the Dodgers, obviously, but it’s still April and rushing a relatively inexperienced top prospect seems to be a panic move and just asking for trouble in the big picture.
Bellinger doesn’t fix the platoon issues in left field, either, as he’s a left-handed hitter. He had success against lefties last season in the minors, but the translation to the MLB level isn’t exactly 1:1 (just ask Joc Pederson).
2016 Vs. RHP (AA/AAA)
.266/.370/.484, 13.7 BB%, 18.9 K%
2016 Vs. LHP (AA/AAA)
.284/.348/.578, 8.9 BB%, 22.3 K%
He hit for more power against lefties in the minors last season, but he also walked less and struck out more against southpaws. That isn’t terribly surprising. The 2017 sample size is too small to draw any conclusions from (2-for-6, three strikeouts against LHP), but keep this in mind: Pederson had even better numbers against lefties in 2014 in the Pacific Coast League (.290/.415/.580), and he’s still being platooned.
In the end, if Bellinger is brought up to help out the Dodgers in left field, then he needs to be playing consistently. That means, against both lefties and righties and he needs to be starting every game against righties and some against lefties. It doesn’t make sense to start his clock early (if he’s up before September) just for him to play three or four times a week, so throw him into the fire and see how he handles it. And if he struggles, it isn’t the end of the world, as evidenced by that list above.
As far as first base goes, let’s be real: Bellinger isn’t supplanting Gonzalez at first base, even if Gonzalez continues to struggle. There’s something to be said for ‘Veteran Presents‘, and Gonzalez is one of the leaders on the team. As long as he’s healthy, he won’t continue to be a 94 wRC+ hitter who isn’t hitting the ball in the air or with authority. A-Gon will likely get on a hot streak and be a solid contributor at some point, and that is more valuable than what Bellinger might do, especially when factoring in the off-the-field stuff. We don’t know if he’d outproduce Gonzalez if given the chance to make the risk there worth it.
Having said all that, if Bellinger keeps OPSing 1.100-plus in Triple-A, the Dodgers are going to have to find a spot for him. At that point, it’s either left field or first base. He won’t be a guy who benefits from just playing sporadically. If he comes up, he’s here to play. If he stays will depend on how he performs.
Bellinger’s time will come soon, I’m just not sure it’s going to be as soon as everyone hopes or expects — and that’s OK.