Shohei Ohtani, the world’s favorite baseball act, continued his 2023 tour at Dodger Stadium this weekend. He brought a media horde and large crowds. It didn’t matter that the Angels are a mediocre ball club without Mike Trout. Ohtani is the main attraction of baseball.
He ended his two-day stay on Saturday before traveling to Seattle to be the center of attention at Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game. Barring an unlikely Freeway World Series or an unimaginable trade in the next three weeks, this is the last time he will play baseball in Los Angeles this year. Next time he might show up as a member of the home team.
The Dodgers’ number one goal this winter is no secret. Ohtani is set to become the most desirable free agent of all time and they want to sign him. Bad. It won’t be the first time.
Ohtani has been a target for the Dodgers since he was a high school star in rural Japan. That was over a decade ago when Ohtani was called “Otani” and the idea that one player could become so dominant as a pitcher and hitter at the highest level was a pipe dream.
The franchise’s allure spans two ownership groups, two front-office regimes, and two activities. The Dodgers were twice considered favorites to sign Ohtani. Twice the Dodgers failed to convince Ohtani to join them. He was the white whale of the organization.
The circumstances of a third chase will be different – unless the Angels shock the industry by signing him for a contract extension before the end of the season.
For the first time, Ohtani will be a true free agent, free from the restrictions that limited his earning potential as an international amateur from Japan. For the first time there will be no question as to whether he is a pitcher or a hitter or both. For the first time he will be a household name.
Ohtani, who turned 29 last week, will undoubtedly receive the richest contract in North American professional sports history. With six seasons in the major leagues, he knows the situation inside out. He probably knows what he wants.
The rest of the baseball world has no idea. Everything is speculation at the moment. The rumors about his preferences. The assumption about his inclinations. Ohtani has kept dropping hints, like two years ago when he mentioned winning is a priority, but he’s a notoriously private person. He only speaks to reporters after the games he is presenting. He does not participate in small talk.
But look around the industry and the Dodgers are the consensus frontrunners to sign Ohtani. The reasons are consistent. You have more than enough money. They produce a consistent winner. They play in great weather. He wouldn’t even have to move.
The lecture writes itself.
An opposing team manager, who spoke on condition of anonymity because manipulation rules prohibit him from discussing potential free agents for other teams, was willing to bet a sushi dinner on the Dodgers. Three other executives repeated that it was the Dodgers and then everyone else. Several agents, who were granted anonymity to speak freely, concurred.
“I know we’re going to make a huge offer,” said one Dodgers player.
To come to that conclusion requires a simple analysis of the team’s recent roster changes. Decisions were apparently made with Ohtani in mind. Just look at last winter, when the Dodgers gave only one-year contracts to the free agents they signed.
Specifically, they opted to sign J.D. Martinez as their designated hitter in place of Justin Turner, in part because Martinez was willing to accept a one-year contract and Turner was aiming for multiple years. Martinez is therefore the designated batsman this season. He has been an excellent performer to date, earning a spot on the starting roster for the National League All-Star Team. Ideally, however, he won’t be their designated hitter for the Dodgers next year. It will be Ohtani.
On the pitching side, the Dodgers let Tyler Anderson and Andrew Heaney go to sign multi-year free agency contracts. Meanwhile, Noah Syndergaard was the only free-agent starting pitcher they signed to a major league contract.
Like Martinez, Syndergaard agreed to a one-year contract. With Clayton Kershaw and Julio Urías moving to free agency this offseason, the Dodgers’ starting lineup for next year is fraught with questions. And that was before last week, when Dustin May suffered another elbow injury and was out until next summer. Should they lure him in, there will be more than enough room for Ohtani in the rotation.
The Dodgers have at least $67 million on their books post-season, and they could lose even more. Ohtani is expected to sign for over $500 million — if not $600 million. He could make $50 million a season, up from the $30 million he’s making this season. The Dodgers can bear the expenses. The team also undoubtedly raves about Ohtani’s marketing potential – he earns $40 million in advertising revenue, significantly more than any other baseball player.
But they’re far from the only franchise excited about the opportunity. Clubs from coast to coast will be vying for the services of the two-way sensation. He’s doing things on a baseball field that nobody’s done before. Babe Ruth doesn’t even compare.
Ohtani may have had the best month a player has ever had, hitting .394 with 15 home runs, 25 extra base hits and a 1.444 OPS while posting a 3.26 ERA with 37 strikeouts in 30 ⅓ innings across five starts scored on the mound in June. He’s on his way to his second MVP award in three seasons. And yet the Angels remain outside of the playoff picture.
A 24-hour losing streak against the San Diego Padres last week further dampened the Angels’ chances of reaching the postseason for the first time since 2014.
Trout broke his left wrist on Monday and will be out for at least a month. Anthony Rendon sustained a pitch in his left leg on Tuesday and has not played since. Minutes later, Ohtani abandoned his start due to a blister on his middle finger. It was an injury that Ohtani said was a continuation of a cracked fingernail problem that hampered his previous start.
The issue prompted Ohtani to announce that he would not be attending Tuesday’s All-Star game, sparking speculation about the Angels’ plans ahead of the trade deadline with one key question: could they really trade Ohtani? The answer is probably not.
Trading with Ohtani would strengthen the farming system. His inventory has never been so high. The Dodgers tried to buy early.
The first opportunity to sign Ohtani came after the 2012 season when Ohtani was in high school. MLB had just set new limits on teams’ spending on international amateur players. The Dodgers could only offer him around $1 million.
And yet Ohtani remained determined to take the unusual step of going straight to the United States rather than playing in Nippon Professional Baseball first. He urged NPB teams not to recruit him.
At this point, the Dodgers were considered the favorite. Her scout in Japan – Keiichi Kojima – was a constant presence in Ohtani’s high school practices. You had the inside information.
The Dodgers and their MLB peers considered Ohtani a pitcher. Japanese teams saw a batsman. Ignoring Ohtani’s request not to recruit him, the Nippon-Ham Fighters selected him in the first round and offered to let him do both. That was enough and Ohtani stayed in Japan. Otherwise, he probably would have signed with the Dodgers.
“I can’t say for sure,” Ohtani told Times columnist Dylan Hernández in 2017, months before he moved to the major leagues. “But there’s a strong possibility that’s exactly what would have happened.”
The Dodgers got their second chance this winter. By this time, Ohtani had achieved prominent A-list status in Japan due to his mutual skills. He led the Fighters to a championship. He won an MVP award. He was the best player in the country. He was looking for the next challenge.
MLB rules stipulated that an international free agent must wait until age 25 to sign a contract of any length and value. Ohtani was 23 years old, so his options were limited to the teams’ remaining international bonus pools. No team could offer him more than a $3.5 million contract bonus. He still chose to move to the major leagues. He announced last summer that the reason for this decision was that he believed it would increase his chances of being inducted into the Hall of Fame.
The Dodgers could only offer Ohtani $300,000. However, that didn’t stop her from trying. A representative from the organization met with Ohtani in Beverly Hills as part of the recruitment process. The group included Clayton Kershaw, Justin Turner and Dave Roberts.
“We did everything we could to get him,” Roberts said.
There was one unsolvable problem: the designated batsman had not yet been accepted into the National League. According to people with knowledge of the situation, the Dodgers were ready to give Ohtani a chance to throw and bat. But without the DH he wouldn’t be playing every day.
The Dodgers’ plan for Ohtani was to put him on a six-man starting rotation and allow him 300 to 400 plate appearances per season. Ohtani was available for pinch hits on the rest days after pitching and played an outfield corner position on the other days he wasn’t on the mound.
“He wanted DH,” Roberts said. “That was the non-negotiable. We didn’t have DH.”
In the end, Ohtani’s decision came as a surprise. The Angels, who hadn’t had a playoff win in nearly a decade, weren’t considered a strong opportunity. But Ohtani chose to join Trout in Anaheim for $2.315 million.
He quickly became the biggest bargain in the sport, earning less than $15 million in his first five seasons, winning the 2021 AL MVP, making two All-Star teams and pushing the limits of what’s possible in a baseball player .
This season, he was selected to the AL All-Star Team as both a designated hitter and a pitcher for the third consecutive year. He’s better than ever. He’s maybe better than anyone ever. The Dodgers are waiting.