San Francisco Giants free-agent profile: Cody Bellinger - Rvpg media

San Francisco Giants free-agent profile: Cody Bellinger

Wait. Don’t scroll down to the comments and type in all-caps. Not yet. Hear me out first.

The Dodgers declined to tender a contract to Cody Bellinger on Friday, completing his transition from 23-year-old MVP to 27-year-old free-agent vagabond. In the history of baseball, there are few career arcs like it. If he had signed a 10-year, $200-million extension on Jan. 1, 2020, it would have been considered one of the most grievous underpays and owner-friendly contracts in baseball. Now he’s available to any team that wants him, probably on a one-year contract.

You hit the caps-lock key after reading that paragraph, and you’re getting ready to scroll. Don’t blame you. I know that it’s hard to imagine an offseason in which the Giants sign Cody Bellinger instead of Aaron Judge*, but we have to at least consider the possibility that there will be a former Dodger roaming around center field for the Giants next season.

It is most definitely not hard for you to imagine this

Yes, writing this is extremely entertaining for me. I love it when I get to harass the readers who pay my salary. It probably has something to do with getting bullied throughout my childhood, but we’re not here to psychoanalyze me. We’re here to decide if the Giants should sign Cody Bellinger.

Hehehehe.

Why the Giants would want Cody Bellinger

This isn’t about amusing the baseball-writing sicko who has an eBay alert set up for an Orel Hershiser Giants shirsey. This makes baseball sense if you look at it the right way. You really gotta squint and get in there close, but I promise I can make the baseball argument.

It starts with his defense:

After watching that play, I tweeted this:

It wasn’t just a cutesy joke! It was meant to annoy Giants fans and Dodgers fans alike, but I also had a sneaky suspicion that the Dodgers were going to non-tender him, and I could also see how he’d fit the Giants.

The argument for Bellinger can end with his defense, too. Forget the strikeouts or the sub-.300 OBP. When’s the last time the Giants had a center fielder as good defensively as Bellinger? According to dWAR, the last time the Giants had a center fielder with a better defensive season than Bellinger’s 2019 season was Andres Torres in 2010. Before that it was Willie Mays in 1964. That’s not a typo, and you can check it yourself. I’m skeptical of newfangled defensive stats, too, and I’d probably say that the correct answer to the question up there is Kevin Pillar or Juan Pérez, but the point stands. Bellinger might be completely lost at the plate and a shell of himself offensively, but he can still pick it.

The Giants need someone who can pick it, especially in center field. That’s a priority. And if we’re talking Bellinger in center, a large, Linden-born slugger in right field and then a platoon of Austin Slater and Mike Yastrzemski in left, the Giants have suddenly turned outfield defense from a substantial weakness into a legitimate, unmistakable strength.

They need a plus center fielder so badly that I’m planning on doing one of these suckers for Kevin Kiermaier, who hit .228/.281/.369 last year, and doesn’t have a ceiling much higher than that. They can’t fuss and fret about the offense that they’re getting from a defensive-minded center fielder. They can put up with merely OK defense from an offensive-minded center fielder like Aaron Judge or Brandon Nimmo, but they’re not getting a Gold Glover with 40-homer power, because those players don’t exist and typically aren’t available.

Unless … why … you know you used to have 40-homer power? There was once a 23-year-old center fielder who hit 47 of them for the Dodgers, and he also won a Gold Glove that year. If the Giants could just unlock that …

But for the purposes of this argument, ignore that MVP past. Get it out of your brain. That’s not the primary reason the Giants would be interested in Bellinger. They would get him to be a latter-day Juan Pérez, an heir to the throne of Tsuyoshi Shinjo. Any offense would be gravy, but you’re interested in the speed and defense first.

Take the Guardians, who won the AL Central last season with Myles Straw playing in 152 games. He had a .291 OBP and hit zero home runs. Not a single one! But they kept playing him because he’s a defensive demigod, and a run saved is just as good as a run scored.

Now, Bellinger isn’t that good in center, but he can also hit more than zero home runs in a season. You’re signing him to pick it, and to run into an occasional home run from the bottom of the order.

Once you stop thinking about the inexplicable and miserable decline, it’s much, much easier to understand how Bellinger would fit. Do that thing where you give him a fake name, like Gudge McDaniel, and check his stats again. He was worth 1.7 WAR according to FanGraphs last year and 1.2 according to Baseball-Reference. Both sites gave Yastrzemski the WAR edge by a hair, but Baseball-Reference said that Bellinger was roughly tied in value with Slater and Joc Pederson. And that’s with the sub-.300 OBP. He could have the exact same season and be a push in value.

Then the wind whispers in your ear, a seductive siren song: But what if the Giants could fix him?

Not get him back to MVP levels, no, no. Just get him back to Kevin Pillar’s best offensive seasons with the Blue Jays. Get him to 80 percent operational, with a .300 OBP and 20 homers.

It would be worth it. Oh, how it would be worth it.

And for a brief second, allow yourself to dream about getting Bellinger back to being a fully operational Death Star. You have five seconds. It’s like imagining the houses you’re going to buy for the five seconds after buying a Powerball ticket. You won’t win, and you know that, but take the five seconds! It’s your right.

Your five seconds are up. Go back to expecting a modern-day Kevin Pillar. The Giants still need one of those. And Bellinger might be the best available version.

Why the Giants wouldn’t want Cody Bellinger

At the beginning of the 1999 film “The Insider,” Al Pacino’s character wears a blindfold as he’s driven to meet a Hezbollah leader in a secret location, and that’s the best analogy for Bellinger right now. Since the start of the 2021 season, he’s hit like a blindfolded Al Pacino in the back of a jeep. Which ain’t good. Buster Posey and Brandon Crawford are both huge reasons why the Giants won the NL West in 2021, but Bellinger might be the biggest reason.

Bellinger is lost. Absolutely lost. He’s just as confused as the rest of us, and it’s wearing on him. While he made a substantial improvement last year (going from a historically awful 44 OPS+ to a merely lousy 78), his new team should expect him to be an extremely glove-only player.

His agent is Scott Boras, though, who is very good at his job. And a team will pay a premium for those MVP dreams. Those lottery dreams aren’t as charming when the Powerball ticket costs $100. Bellinger will get paid three times what Kiermaier gets, if not more, even though their production will probably be similar.

The Dodgers are declining to pay that premium because they think the money should be spent elsewhere. Like, oh …

Seems bad.

And if the Giants have a finite budget — which they generally do — they can’t be messing around with a $100 Powerball ticket. They’ll need an All-Star to get the fans excited, and they’ll need a Cy Young candidate to replace the one they just lost. If they can get both of those first and Bellinger, well, that’s a different scenario. That’s a huge if, though.

This is an important offseason for the Giants. The front office can’t screw it up. The ownership group needs to get those butts in the seats. They already have one overpaid role-playing outfielder in Joc Pederson. Getting another one seems like a way to mess up their chances at Judge, Carlos Rodón, Trea Turner, Masataka Yoshida or anyone else who catches their fancy.

The most important consideration, however, is that the Dodgers couldn’t fix him. The Dodgers. They won 111 games last year because they can put Tyler Anderson and Andrew Heaney into a cardboard box with “transdodgerifier” written on the side and get wildly effective pitchers. They’re the team that introduced the idea of manufacturing superstars like Justin Turner and Max Muncy, discarded talents who just needed a little polishing. All of their king’s horses, men and top analysts could not put Cody Bellinger back together again.

And you’re thinking the Giants can do it? Maybe that kind of hubris would have been justified after 2021, but it’s a tougher sell now.

Verdict

As the last piece of the puzzle, I’m for it. Honestly, truly for it. If the Giants actually get one, two or three of their top free-agent targets and look like a stronger team, I can’t stress enough how well Bellinger fits, and that’s as is. Even with a .290 OBP, he fits, and then you can hope his problems were physical, not mental, and that he returns to a shadow of his former self. He is just 27, after all. Mike Yastrzemski hit .202/.276/.327 when he was 27 … in Double A for the 2018 Bowie Baysox. He ended up having a strong major-league career. Baseball is a silly sport.

As a first step, goodness, no. The risk that dreams of Judge are dashed and replaced with, I don’t know, a Bellinger-A.J. Pollock platoon in center are too real. The Giants haven’t done anything to dissuade Giants fans from thinking they’re going to get a shiny Offseason Champions trophy to carry around all spring. Some doses of reality are more poisonous than others. This is an argument that’s about optics, not baseball, but this is an important offseason for Giants optics. They have a lot of convincing to do, and an underwhelming offseason is a huge risk.

But if the Giants commit a half-billion to a couple of marquee players, or even if they get only a very, very large guy from the Yankees, they should absolutely check in with Bellinger. At his worst, he’s still pretty OK. At his best, he’s a marvel. If the Giants expected the worst and got it, they’d still be happy. They need to improve their defense that badly.

Either way, it wouldn’t be dull. It would gross out Dodgers fans, that’s for sure, and that’s not not a worthwhile goal. Focus on the baseball stuff. Here’s a 20-homer outfielder who can chase down balls in center field.

Doesn’t that sound like a player the Giants should be interested in?

Caps lock on.


Index of San Francisco Giants free-agent profiles

(Photo: Harry How / Getty Images)



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