The Blue Jays and Cody Bellinger are a near-perfect match

Cody Bellinger has not been at his best over the last few seasons, but Toronto could be the perfect destination to rediscover his MVP-level form. (Getty Images)
Cody Bellinger has not been at his best over the last few seasons, but Toronto could be the perfect destination to rediscover his MVP-level form. (Getty Images)

As soon as the Toronto Blue Jays traded away Teoscar Hernández, they instantly became big players in the free agent outfield market.

This year’s offseason crop of outfield talent isn’t spectacular, but that hasn’t stopped the reports linking Toronto to several top players. Brandon Nimmo and Andrew Benintendi are viable options. Michael Brantley looks good as a left-handed platoon hitter, too. Now, though, there’s a wildcard in the mix: Cody Bellinger.

The 27-year-old former MVP was recently non-tendered by the Los Angeles Dodgers and has reportedly received interest from the Jays. Lots of teams will inquire about Bellinger, who’s struggled mightily the last two seasons but is a legitimate bounce-back candidate.

Here’s a deep dive on why the left-handed hitting Bellinger would make sense for the Blue Jays in 2023.

Salary

Cash is the easiest part of this equation. Bellinger is rumoured to be seeking a one-year contract, likely around the $10-million to $15-million mark. With Hernández’s departure freeing up payroll, the Blue Jays should have no problem pursuing Bellinger at that value.

There are obvious risks associated with a move for Bellinger, who could be a complete offensive dud in 2023, but the outfielder carries such upside that he’s worth a one-year gamble. Think back to the Marcus Semien deal ahead of the 2021 season. The shortstop was coming off a bumpy stretch and eventually signed a one-year, $18-million deal with Toronto that wound up being a massive win for both parties.

Bellinger’s fit in the Blue Jays lineup

Well, he was an 8.6-WAR NL MVP in 2019 but has since withered into one of the worst hitters in baseball (.193 average in his last 900 regular-season plate appearances). Bellinger did it all in 2019 –a slugging percentage over .600, an excellent walk rate and strikeout rate – but if that guy is truly gone, what remains?

Despite Bellinger’s struggles – particularly with getting underneath baseballs – the Arizona native has narrowly maintained an above-average exit velocity over the last two seasons. His barrel rate and hard-hit percentage have also stayed positive as his contact and swing-and-miss numbers have plummeted.

Of note, Bellinger performed better in 2022 with runners in scoring position (RISP). His .736 OPS was more tolerable, as was his .459 slugging with RISP, which was higher than what Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (.425), Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (.419) and Matt Chapman (.416) produced. Hernández was one of Toronto’s top performers with RISP a year ago (.521 SLG); Bellinger isn’t the entire solution, but that production will need to be replaced.

With MLB limiting defensive shifts in 2023, things will automatically become easier for Bellinger, who was shifted in over 90 percent of his at-bats a year ago. The shift ban should allow Bellinger to return to his pull-heavy approach that produced an MVP-calibre season in 2019, when he was shifted 10 percent less and pulled the ball 47 percent of the time.

Restoring Bellinger’s swing

The visual effects of a traditional defence in front of him should help Bellinger. Whether players admit it or not, there is real frustration derived from a hard-hit ball in a hole getting snagged by a shifted fielder.

Secondly, and more importantly, there are philosophies within the Blue Jays’ staff of hitting coaches that should help revive Bellinger’s mojo at the dish. Take Danny Jansen as an example. The Jays catcher found his groove as a hitter after shedding the pressure of trying to constantly use the whole field. The 27-year-old said he was overthinking, so he leaned into his more comfortable approach as a pull-heavy hitter. The results showed up, as Jansen closed the 2022 season with an .855 OPS (144 OPS+).

Bellinger’s swing is an abstract work of art. He has an upright setup and very little load movement before the pitch. The result is a violent, quick-twitch slash. When Bellinger’s explosive swing is locked in, his potential is unmatched. When it’s off-kilter, like it has been the last two years, his swing plane gets loopy, and he stands no chance at touching high pitches or keeping his barrel in the zone long enough to hit a breaking ball.

Bellinger comes across as a hitter who relies on “feel” and comfort in the box, much like Raimel Tapia, who worked with Jays coaches a year ago to “free himself up” from the left side. If Toronto signs Bellinger, expect the Blue Jays to let him clear his mind, stick to his strengths, and swing away as he restores his confidence.

Baserunning and defence

Speed and defence don’t slump. If the Blue Jays can strike a deal with Bellinger, he could easily assume duties in centre field (if George Springer is ready to move) or right field. He profiled as the ninth-best centre fielder in baseball last season (seven outs above average) and possesses above-average arm strength.

Additionally, Bellinger has finished each of his five MLB seasons with a sprint speed above the 70th percentile and stole 14 bags on 17 tries in 2022. The Blue Jays’ roster would be immediately improved by his baserunning and fielding skills, which would help to mitigate some of the risk associated with his hitting profile.

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