- After his first three games in the big leagues, Los Angeles Dodgers top prospect Cody Bellinger looked like he wasn’t ready for prime time. He was hitting .100/.250/.100, with his lone hit a squibber to third base that he barely beat out for an infield single. His poor on-base percentage was aided by an intentional walk with first base open and the pitcher on deck, and he had struck out in five of his twelve plate appearances and popped up in the infield in two others.
It was the day after that third game that Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said Bellinger’s first stint in the majors would be a short one:
Roberts said that @cody_bellinger will not stay up for the long haul if he starts hitting. Says he’ll likely be option with DL guys are back
— Alanna Rizzo (@alannarizzo) April 28, 2017
It wasn’t controversial at the time to say that the 21-year-old who seemed overmatched would likely be sent back to the minors. But the four games since then have sparked some discussion and, it seems, maybe started to change the minds of some of the Dodgers decision-makers.
Since Roberts’ comments before Friday’s game, Bellinger is hitting .467/.500/.933 (7-for-15 with two home runs, a double, and a walk). He has also not struck out in those 16 plate appearances, and his second home run of the game (and his career) on Saturday night was sandwiched between homers by Yasiel Puig and Justin Turner to tie the game in the ninth inning of a game they would win a few batters later. Despite the slow start, Bellinger’s overall batting line of .320/.393/.600 now closely resembles the .343/.429/.627 line he put up in 77 plate appearances at Triple-A Oklahoma City this season.
Roberts, speaking about Bellinger today, was singing an ever-so-slightly different tune:
“Cody will be in the lineup tonight. But we are taking it day by day right now.” Dave Roberts just now about Cody Bellinger’s near future
— Jason Stewart (@JasonStewart) May 2, 2017
The difference really is slight. It is still more likely than not that Bellinger will return to Oklahoma City sometime soon. With Franklin Gutierrez due to be activated today and Joc Pederson rehabbing with the High-A Rancho Cucamonga Quakes right now, the crowded outfield in Los Angeles is about to become even more crowded. Even if the Dodgers were to give up on longtime backup outfielder Scott Van Slyke, whose .129/.250/.258 batting line has come almost entirely against the left-handed pitchers he is supposed to dominate, keeping Bellinger as an outfielder would still require at least one other move. The Dodgers aren’t likely to keep Bellinger in the big leagues as a backup, and regular playing time in the outfield is going to be really hard to come by soon.
Of course, Bellinger is primarily a first baseman, and his time in the outfield has been more due to necessity than to longterm plans. Bellinger is an outstanding defensive first baseman, and his bat is more than good enough to hold down the spot. The problem there is Adrian Gonzalez, a fan favorite and an excellent defender himself who is signed through the 2018 season. Gonzalez, though, has really struggled so far this season, hitting .258/.333/.315 with no home runs. With a .492 career slugging percentage coming into the season, it’s easy to speculate that the elbow injury that hampered him in spring training is not fully healed. Gonzalez has never played fewer than 156 games since becoming a regular in 2006, but he will be 36 years old next week, and age and nagging injuries might be catching up to him.
In the long run, Bellinger is the first baseman of the future for the Dodgers. While he has filled in admirably in the outfield this past week, that opportunity window is closing. The only remaining question is whether his future at first base starts now or later. With his performance and Gonzalez’s struggles, we might see him taking over sooner than anyone expected.
UPDATE: As the corresponding move with Gutierrez being activated from the disabled list, the Dodgers today optioned Van Slyke to the minors.