We won’t truly know where Shohei Ohtani will play the next chapter of his storied career until he goes there. The enigmatic star says very little – even when he talks – and what’s more, the year-long process of speculation has now given way to actual negotiations with all the discretion. There will soon be rumors to respond to and possibly more free agent signings to look for clues about. But for now we only know what happened before.
Six years ago, a 23-year-old, already internationally known phenom left Japan – years before he could make hundreds of millions more, but years after he announced as a high school student that he planned to play in the MLB – and signed with the Los Angeles Angels. If we go back to that first frantic pursuit of Ohtani and work from there, we can recap what we know about how the most interesting man in baseball will make the biggest decision of his career.
We know the seven teams he was interested in last time.
For his first foray into Major League Baseball, Ohtani requested presentations from All 30 teams were asked to provide information about their facilities, markets and organizational philosophies, as well as how it would be integrated. From there, he and his agent Nez Balelo of CAA (who still represents Ohtani) narrowed the list down to a final list of seven teams. This may be the most concrete evidence available; Along with the Angels, it offers a shortlist of the secondary teams that have caught Ohtani’s interest.
In December 2017, it was announced that the Ohtani finalists were the Angels, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants, Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers and Chicago Cubs.
Because Ohtani decided to come to the United States before he was 25 years old — when he would have been an international free agent — money was not his top priority. The Rangers had the most international signing money, which could have explained their inclusion in the finalists, except that the next two teams could afford to pay Ohtani the most – the Yankees and the Twins – were not among the final teams. So if Ohtani liked those seven teams back then, then so be it not Given the contract terms they were willing to offer, it stands to reason that some of what he liked then is probably still relevant today.
For the Yankees in particular, their exclusion from the short list was so notable that general manager Brian Cashman explained that Ohtani seemed to prefer small market teams and teams on the West Coast.
Of course, Cashman still runs baseball operations for the Yankees, but it’s important to remember that for many of the teams in question, the regime that recruited Ohtani in 2017 is no longer the same one that runs the show today. Take the Angels themselves, for example. The team is now managed by Perry Minasian, but Ohtani originally signed with – and he was reportedly particularly impressed by it –Billy Eppler.
This time, that might have been a clue — Eppler spent the last two seasons running baseball operations for the New York Mets and seemed poised to stay with the organization even after they hired David Stearns instead of him — except that he recently resigned (or “resigned”) in the middle of an investigation into misuse of the injured list. Meaning: The only man who ever managed to sign Ohtani in the MLB is currently unemployed.
In the end, Ohtani’s decision to join the Angels wasn’t that meaningful. After his signing, his agent, Balelo, released a statement noting that “the most important thing to him was not the market size, the time zone or the league, but that he felt a real connection to the Angels.”
A real bond. OK.
Still, six years later, the general assumption is that Ohtani would prefer to live on the West Coast – closer to Japan. But even if Cashman was right that the two-way star originally preferred a smaller market, that desire has since been replaced by something more pressing.
We know he wants to win.
Does it seem like we’re already scraping the bottom of the barrel? Everyone – especially successful professional athletes and especially those with the drive and determination to become baseball’s unicorn – wants to win. But over the past few seasons, as reporters pressed Ohtani to reveal, if not where he would go next, then at least what he thought of that then-employer, the motivation of wanting to win became a possible counterpoint to inertia.
“I like the fans. I like the atmosphere in the organization. But my feeling of wanting to win is strongerOhtani said about playing for the Angels as the 2021 season came to an end. “That’s the biggest thing for me. So I’ll leave it at that.”
After the team suffered a regression in 2022, he told a Japanese media: “I have a rather negative impression of the season.” Due to Ohtani’s always moderate media presence, this was viewed as a reproach from the angels.
Last season, with free agency just months away, Ohtani was asked at the All-Star Game how important it was to him to play for a winning team.
This type of questioning has always been implicitly placed in contrast to the Angels — a team that famously failed to convert six seasons of Ohtani and Mike Trout into a single postseason game. But now that Ohtani is once again considering all 30 clubs, it’s actually more revealing than the obvious suggests.
Not all 30 MLB teams are projected or expected to win in the immediate to near future – or at least not enough to make the postseason. The Dodgers, for example, emerged as possible favorites in the Ohtani sweepstakes in part because their track record of 11 consecutive postseason appearances is hard to deny.
At the same time, Ohtani could still return to the Angels. Another important factor in his initial search was finding a team willing to let him pursue his two-way ambitions. He’s since proven amply that it’s possible to both throw and hit at an incredibly high level – which is a big part of his appeal – but the Angels’ overall latitude in dealing with Ohtani should make them an attractive option again do for him.
And yet, after being lured into baseball purgatory in Anaheim, Ohtani will probably prefer a proven winner this time around.
We know it will be very expensive.
Another reason the Dodgers are at the top of the suitor list: They had an unusually subdued offseason last winter — a decision that was seen as strategic and allowed them to save money for this year when Ohtani would be available.
Money may not have been a major factor for Ohtani in 2017, but this time it may be the key differentiator as interested teams compete to outbid each other on what is sure to be a historic contract. An extensive investigation into Ohtani’s value by ESPN last season revealed a number of findings $300 million to well over $600 million, with an emphasis on the high end. In most speculative stories written about Ohtani’s impending free agency, $500 million was viewed as a base that would set a new benchmark.
But that was before he tore his ACL in August and had surgery in September, leaving him only able to play in one direction for the time being.
Dr. Neal ElAttrache, who performed the surgery, said in a statement at the time that he expected Ohtani to be ready to hit “without restrictions” by Opening Day in 2024 and to resume pitching in 2025. Of course, how he fares during and after his recovery remains to be seen.
Between the injury and the surgery, Ken Rosenthal wrote that Ohtani was not doing well “still worth $500 million, if not more.” And while the injury may give teams that are particularly in need of immediate rotation help pause, they will still be expected to pay up if they want to sign the star long-term. Even if the contract is full of complicated conditions and incentivesit will still end up being in a range that is only realistic for the highest spending teams.