Two years ago, Cody Bellinger was on his way to a National League MVP award for the 106-win Dodgers. Now, he’s one of the worst-producing players in baseball (minimum 300 plate appearances).
His 44 wRC+ and -0.6 WAR are 3rd- and 7th-worst in baseball among players with at least 300 plate appearances. He looks like a shell of his former self. Despite showing some glimpses a few weeks ago of turning things around. It seems that was an aberration.
His batted-ball profile isn’t inspiring much confidence in a turnaround, either.
Just check that “Past 50 PA” mark for xwOBA and, yeah, Cody is struggling immensely.
While he’s still a good defender in center field, his defensive runs saved is at -1 and he’s just not the same player he was even a year ago. Dodger fans, who were on his case last year, would kill for him to have a .239/.333/.455 with 114 wRC+.
But what’s the solution? Dave Roberts had already said Bellinger’s role would be reduced due to his struggles. That means he’d be in a platoon role vs. right-handed pitching. With AJ Pollock hitting the injured list with a hamstring injury (#TrueDodger), Bellinger has been thrust back into a more full-time role. The problem is, the Dodgers don’t have a ton of great options outside of him.
Billy McKinney, somehow, still has a semi-regular role on this team. He’s hitting .154/.287/.244 with a 55 wRC+. Zach McKinstry, who got off to a hot start this season, is down to .215/.263/.405 with a 79 wRC+. Gavin Lux, former top prospect, is hitting just .241/.281/.278 with a 40 wRC+ since being demoted to Triple-A Oklahoma City. Luke Raley (on the 60-day IL with Sheldon Neuse, possibly COVID-19-related) and Zach Reks haven’t been the answer, either. Raley is hitting .169/.246/.237 with a 36 wRC+. Reks has hit well with OKC (.292/.394/.553, 132 wRC+), but has just 10 plate appearances with the LA Dodgers this season.
I wrote about the depth issues the Dodgers were facing earlier this season, and things got better once other guys got healthy, but Bellinger’s season-long slump and injuries have impacted the Dodgers’ depth. The initial recovery time for the shoulder surgery he had was 10 weeks, but it has to still be impacting him. He’s too talented to be struggling this badly without a reason. Dodger hitters of past have struggled to come back from shoulder surgeries in the past (Adrian Gonzalez, Shawn Green come to mind), so let’s hope a full, regular offseason helps Bellinger get back on track.
As for the rest of 2021, Matt Beaty might be the play. He’s currently with OKC, but he has hit .262/.358/.374 in 215 plate appearances with the Dodgers this season. He struggled to begin the season and was given a brief demotion to the alternate site. He said that helped him get back on track. Prior to his demotion on April 17, he was just 1-for-11 with two walks and six strikeouts. Since he came back on April 24, he has hit .273/.366/.392. The power isn’t there, but the on-base ability is. Slotting him in the No. 8 spot in the lineup as the primary left- or right fielder (depending on other defensive alignments that day) against right-handed pitching seems to make the most sense. Beaty simply cannot be any worse than Bellinger or the other options mentioned above.
The center field defense shouldn’t be a concern, as Chris Taylor or Mookie Betts can handle that, with Beaty (and others) playing a corner outfield spot. Against left-handed pitching, the Dodgers could try to get really creative, with Trea Turner going out to center field, which would allow Albert Pujols to play first base and Max Muncy to slide over to second, but that seems a bit drastic this late in the season.
I thought about looking deeper into the minors to find a solution, but I don’t think a guy like Ryan Noda (.240/.384/.501, 16.5 BB%, 26.4 K% with Double-A Tulsa) is ready. Yes, he’s 25 years old, but this is his first season playing above A-ball and it’d be difficult to put that much pressure on a rookie who’s not even regarded as a top prospect. The same goes for Michael Busch (minus the “top prospect” label), but he has dealt with injuries this season and has been somewhat inconsistent. Other than those two, the prospect pipeline for outfielders is a bit thin at the upper levels.
This is an unenviable position for any team, but especially a team that is defending its World Series title. If Pollock can come back after the 10 days, that would help a lot. However, the Dodgers shouldn’t push him, as they’ll need him for October — even if it means playing Bellinger more and, probably, ending up in the Wild Card game.