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Toolshed: Bellinger rises above on defense

Dodgers prospect could be elite at first base, has outfield versatility
January 30, 2017

The Dodgers acquired a second baseman a week ago, but not the one many were expecting. The defending NL West champs landed Logan Forsythe from the Rays in a straight swap for No. 33 overall prospect José De León, a move that followed months of rumors that they were chasing

The Dodgers acquired a second baseman a week ago, but not the one many were expecting. The defending NL West champs landed Logan Forsythe from the Rays in a straight swap for No. 33 overall prospect José De León, a move that followed months of rumors that they were chasing Twins slugger Brian Dozier. According to reports, Minnesota was asking for De Leon plus another prospect, and Cody Bellinger was consistently linked as a player the Twins were requesting.
But in those reports -- such as this one by Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports -- the Dodgers seemed unwilling to part with Bellinger under any circumstances. A big reason? He's as promising defensively as first base prospects come.

Ranked by as the No. 13 prospect in baseball and No. 1 at first base, Bellinger is the only player among the top 10 at the position who has a 70 grade for his fielding ability on the 20-80 scouting scale. Of course, a tool can only be considered plus-plus if it's above and beyond his peers, but such a grade is a rarity at first base, a position dominated by sluggers who bring value with their bats rather than their gloves.
Bellinger himself defines the role of a good defensive first baseman pretty simply: the guy who makes everyone else's job easier.
"For me, it comes down to saving errors, keeping innings shorter," he said. "For pitchers, if you can save them a couple throws over or even a couple pitches with all they do, that can be big. Really though, if I can keep everything in front of me and dig out a few balls, then I've done my job."
A pair of Dodgers coaches who spent 2016 watching Bellinger believes he goes beyond those basic rubrics. 
"I don't think there's any measure on how good he was [at first] this season for us," said Double-A Tulsa manager Ryan Garko, who made 367 starts at first base in the Majors with the Indians, Giants and Rangers. "He's got great hands and a strong, accurate arm, and I think he's got a good feel around the bag. The amount of runs he's saved for the club, I just don't think we have a measure for it in the Minors. There's no limit for how good he could be. He's going to be as a good defensively as anyone at first."
"First, the ease at which he does it, I think we take that for granted sometimes," Dodgers field coordinator Clayton McCullough added. "He's got a big [6-foot-4, 210-pound], long-levered body, and that makes for an awesome target over there. Left-handed hitters like him sometimes have this real smoothness to them at the plate, but he has something like that defensively. ... With the other infielders, you see him save an errant throw and it helps the other end's confidence, knowing he can do that. He instills confidence in others with his ability."

That's high praise for any first baseman, particularly one with impressive offensive potential, as evidenced by his .271/.365/.507 line and 26 homers in 117 games last season. But Bellinger has shown even more, having played 34 games (26 starts) in the outfield in 2016. He made 11 starts in center field -- almost unheard of for a first baseman -- along with 10 in left and five in right. Both Garko and McCullough said Bellinger handled his duties out on the grass admirably. "You're not going to lose games with him in the outfield," McCullough said.
The 21-year-old was an outfielder until his junior year at Hamilton High School in Chandler, when a growth spurt spurred a move to first, the position at which the Dodgers selected him in the fourth round of the 2013 Draft. For his part, Bellinger remains a little more confident in his abilities at his original position.
"It's honestly like riding a bike," he said. "I feel like I could be a Major League outfielder right now. ... I'm all for it, if it means I have a faster route to the big leagues."
Therein lies the rub for both Bellinger and the Dodgers. His 2016 season ended with a postseason run with Triple-A Oklahoma City and a trip to the Arizona Fall League, moves that signal a Major League debut is imminent in 2017, if his development continues. That's great in a vacuum, but the Dodgers have five-time All-Star and clubhouse leader Adrian Gonzalez signed to play first base through the 2018 season. There's evidence Gonzalez is on the decline -- namely, his 1.3 WAR, according to FanGraphs, was his lowest since 2005, and his Defensive Runs Saved metric dipped into single digits (three) for the first time since 2010. But with Gonzalez owed $43 million over the next two years, he could be anchored to first base in Chavez Ravine for a while. Bellinger is prepared for that scenario.
"It's out of my control, obviously," he said. "I'm completely open to whatever they need. The good thing about the outfield is that there are three positions out there, so there are some more chances for me. With Adrian, he's a leader on and off the field, and you can't replace that. I'm happy I can learn from him whenever we're together. I think the organization is in a good spot."
No matter where Bellinger ends up in the short term, both Garko and McCullough said they are convinced his future is at first base, where he can have a greater defensive impact. There's more work to grow in that aspect -- both coaches mentioned that preparation, focus and pitch-by-pitch positioning were key to his growth going forward -- but everyone involved sees gold in Bellinger's future.
"His highest ceiling, by far, is at first base," McCullough said. "I mean, he really has a chance to be elite over there. To hold down an outfield spot, that's something he's capable of handling. But he's got a real opportunity to be a plus-plus over at first. ... He's a smart guy who knows the landscape. Guys in our organization get their opportunities when they show they're ready. When you have a good athlete like Cody, that won't be far off."

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.