The first two weeks of Shohei Ohtani’s free agency have been filled with breathless speculation, rampant speculation and a growing list of suitors preparing to bid for his services. What this two weeks didn’t do was solve the central mystery. The example is the same: everyone wants it. And no one knows for sure what he wants.
Ohtani is a two-time American League MVP who is still in his 20s and has excelled both at the plate and on the mound. He’s also coming off major elbow surgery and spending at least 2024 as a designated hitter. The output rate for the next contract attracted the industry.
Players are itching to find out the identity of Otani’s destination and his salary cap. So are league executives, agents and most anyone with a vested interest in even a baseball team.
“I have no idea,” said one National League general manager. “No idea. It’ll be charming, won’t it?”
The rest of the market may not move significantly until Ohtani decides. Such is life when his wish list includes the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets, New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, Texas Rangers, Atlanta Braves, San Francisco Giants, Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays. It’s even possible to meet the Los Angeles Angels.
But this pursuit isn’t a typical, annual marquee free agent, keeping the best deals from the league’s biggest spenders. There is always a comparison for every pitcher or hitter on the open market, a reference point that teams and agents can use to pick up new terms. Not in this case, very little is known about the needs and desires of the central characters. Ohtani hasn’t spoken to the media since Aug. 9, more than a month before he underwent elbow surgery. After Ohtani captured his second American League MVP award last week, a scheduled meeting with reporters was canceled. Everyone is clamoring for answers about what Ohtani wants — how long he plans to jump, what kind of contract structure he’ll receive, his desire to play other positions down the road — and he remains a black box, at least publicly.
The lack of clarity and speculation about the future has created an unprecedented situation, according to interviews with players and executives, some of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to speak freely about free agency.
“He’s a unicorn,” White Sox GM Chris Getz said.
So how much is a unicorn worth to a baseball team?
Now that the postseason is over, now that the manager’s chant is about to stop, now that awards season has come and gone, Ohtani can once again capture the industry’s attention. Over the course of two weeks, he will oversee the talks at the winter meetings. This will be a free agent pursuit unlike any other.
“I was impressed,” said one AL executive. “Where is it going to end up? What is the role going to be? How does this role in 2024 affect his chances of returning as a starter in 25? How do you pay that price? Where is the end? What market? How will it change the balance of division competition in 24 and 25? Because, it’s very different, isn’t it? It looks like you’re just adding a 24 impact bat and a 25 impact start. It’s attractive.”
Those are the questions people in the game are asking, questions to ponder for any organization considering an investment of more than half a billion dollars. Ultimately, it’s not up to the executives of the Dodgers or Giants or Cubs or Yankees or Mets or Blue Jays or Rangers or Red Sox to decide what contract is needed. They are players. They are former teammates. They know him best – but they don’t know what he wants or what he deserves.
“He’s a player heading into free agency that we’ve never seen before,” said Kole Calhoun, his teammate with the Angels in 2018 and ’19. “Both teams in today’s game? Let’s see what it’s worth.
The Athletics’ Tim Britton will sign Ohtani to a 12-year contract worth $520 million, the largest contract in MLB history, surpassing the 12-year, $426.5 million extension Ohtani’s longtime teammate Mike Trout signed with the Angels. The proposed contract would match Max Scherzer’s record average annual value of $43.3 million per season. Of course, Scherzer signed for three years. Ohtani can sign for ten years.
Or, Ohtani could opt for a shorter contract that would still have a record-setting average annual value, but would allow him to reset the market if he can return to being a two-way force.
Ohtani underwent elbow surgery in September after tearing his ulnar collateral ligament. Neither the Angels nor Ohtani’s agent, Nez Ballou, has released a formal statement about the procedure, which was performed by Dodgers team physician Dr. Neil Elatrache. The procedure is Ohtani’s second Tommy John surgery, according to the Los Angeles Times. Either way, Ohtani isn’t going down in 2024. Balolo Ohtani hopes to return to the mound in 2025 Uncertainty further clouded the market. What if there weren’t doubts about both powerhouses going in and out to record a Cy Young Award-caliber ERA, as has been the case the last few years?
As one NL executive said: “I don’t feel good about it. He changed, knowing that next year he would not say goodbye. But I don’t know how much he’s changed, and I don’t really know what he wants.
Ohtani says he wants to win, but will he accept a more modest salary to field a better roster? Does he have geographic preferences? Is the length of the contract a sticking point? Will teams be desperate to get him and will he have the ability to say exactly what he wants?
“From everything I’ve heard, he’s not cash-driven,” said another N.L. “He rejected a lot of money [in Japan] First coming here. So it just happens where it fits.
Six years ago, each team developed a playbook designed to convince Ohtani to join their franchise. No one knew about the election then. He narrowed the field down to seven finalists: Angels, Mariners, Rangers, Cubs, Dodgers, Giants and Padres. The Angels won … and they didn’t win, which is why one AL executive suggested the Angels are unlikely to re-sign with the next team unless they outbid the next team by $100 million.
Since arriving in the majors, Ohtani has rewired the baseball brain to understand how a modern player can develop at both levels in such a unique sport, raising past expectations. He is the first player to win multiple MVP awards unanimously. He is the AL’s home run king in hitting average, drawing walks and stealing bases. When healthy, he lurks in the shadows of Cy Young Award competition, with valuable rate stats but a little short innings total because, well, he’s a little short of going seven innings every five days.
“He’s become the face of baseball,” Calhoun said. “When he’s on the mound or in the box, people stop and stare. all of them.
On the heels of a 62-homer campaign, Aaron Judge made a record $360 million free agent deal with the Yankees last summer. He hasn’t placed since his senior year at Linden (Calif.).
“This is on another level,” Calhoun said. “It looks like the umpire came out and had a 20-game winner.”
That would cost Ohta out of most teams’ plans. One executive, for example, said he wouldn’t even bother to consider a sales pitch to offer to the franchise owner, given that Ohtani’s salary would increase the club’s payroll. There won’t be 30 Otani playbooks this time around.
But what is the ceiling for chasing teams? If they’re willing to offer Ohtani $500 million, why stop there if a bidding war pushes the price above that number? His skill set makes him the league’s greatest spectacle, a dream team for anyone working in marketing, corporate sponsorship or the ticketing department. One executive suggested the teams could offset a significant portion, if not all, of Ohtani’s salary through sponsorships. With a global reach, Otani’s next team’s marketing potential is limitless.
“That kind of person can change the shape of the future of your organization,” says Calhoun.
Calhoun said he texted Ohtani’s interpreter, Ipe Mizuhara, to get information on Ohtani’s plan, but to no avail. Ohtani said he is a private person. Hiding in plain sight. What do we know about it?
“My sense is that he wants to be the best of all time, but I don’t think he’s saying that publicly,” said Cardinals outfielder Lars Notbar, who played with Ohtani in the World Baseball Classic. “Just watching him and how he works, how he carries himself, he’s a very humble guy. He’s a crazy competitor, maybe a little bit quieter than the other guys, but I think he wants to be the best ever.
Regardless of Ohtani, Calhoun predicts no player’s contract will compete with the deal “long term.”
“What’s his comp, Babe Ruth?” Calhoun asked. “That’s all.”
In 1920, when the Red Sox traded Ruth to the Yankees for $100,000 to finance a Broadway show, free agency certainly didn’t exist.
No one else has these metrics, these credentials, this ability to leave his mark on the record books, the pennant chase, the organization, the city. Ohtani is as predictable a prospect as there is in baseball, and his free agency showing should be no different.
“I can’t wait to see what happens with him,” Calhoun said. “A guy who hits the ball 500 feet and throws the ball 100 miles an hour — he’s going to be a free agent now. It’s going to be crazy.”
The Athletic’s Katie Wo contributed to this report.
(Top photo of Ohtani: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)