Before Major League Baseball’s lockout began at the start of this month, the Dodgers quietly checked one important item off their winter to-do list.
The team agreed to a one-year, $17-million contract with former MVP Cody Bellinger to avoid arbitration, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. The deal was finished before the lockout began on Dec. 2 — all offseason activity has since been halted — but wasn’t revealed publicly until Thursday. ESPN first reported the news.
The $17-million salary represents a $900,000 raise from what the outfielder earned this last season. Bellinger, 26, is entering his third of four arbitration-eligible seasons and is set to become a free agent after the 2023 campaign.
The deal comes in the wake of a roller coaster season for Bellinger, who struggled with injuries and woeful production during the regular season before rebounding with a promising performance in the playoffs.
The two-time All-Star and 2019 MVP underwent surgery following the team’s 2020 World Series title for a right shoulder injury he sustained in a celebration with then-teammate Kiké Hernández during that year’s National League Championship Series.
The ensuing recovery limited his offseason training program. He then suffered a hairline fracture in his left fibula during the opening week of the campaign that kept him out for almost two months.
Once he returned, he struggled to find consistency at the plate. His batting average never got back above .200 after July 4. He finished with only 10 home runs and 36 RBIs, by far career-lows for a full-length season. And he suffered a couple other injuries, missing 10 games with left hamstring tightness and eight more because of fractured ribs.
Among hitters with at least 350 plate appearances last season, Bellinger ranked second-worst in the majors in wRC+, an all-encompassing advanced metric.
“It’s been a grind for sure,” Bellinger said in late September. “It’s not fun. But at the end of the day, I have confidence in myself, belief in myself.”
In the postseason, that self-confidence finally blossomed. After shortening his swing and developing a more disciplined approach at the plate, Bellinger delivered some of the biggest moments of the Dodgers’ postseason run to the NLCS.
He had two RBIs in Game 2 of the division series against the San Francisco Giants, then knocked in the go-ahead run in the ninth inning of the series’ decisive fifth game.
In Game 3 of the NLCS against the Atlanta Braves, he hit a game-tying three-run homer in the eighth inning that helped the Dodgers rally for a comeback win. Even when the team was eliminated in Game 6, he drove in one of its two runs that night.
Yet, his overall struggles made it unlikely he’d receive a significant raise this winter.
Before his first arbitration-eligible season in 2020, Bellinger signed a one-year deal worth $11.5 million, setting a record for first-year arbitration players (though he ended up only making $4.2 million after the season was shortened by the pandemic).
Though he regressed in 2020, he still earned a $16.1-million deal from the team to avoid arbitration heading into this last season.
With Bellinger locked down for 2022, the team will be hoping he can rediscover his old form — and that last year was nothing more than an aberration for a player who once seemed destined to be the face of the franchise.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.