Shohei Ohtani will enter free agency on the mend.
The two-way superstar provided clarity on his injured elbow, undergoing surgery Tuesday and not expected to pitch until 2025. While Ohtani won’t take the mound, he’ll be healthy enough to hit next season come Opening Day.
So what does this all mean?
Ohtani’s free agency was already expected to be fascinating, and now the health of his elbow adds further intrigue. Does his recent surgery scare off suitors, or does the opportunity to approach his free agency differently add more teams to the mix?
Ohtani is still fully expected to cash in. Here are the directions his free agency could go.
Option A: Sign short-term deal
There will be no shortage of suitors if Ohtani is willing to take a two-year deal to reenter the market for his age-31 season. He’d likely attract interest from two-thirds of the league.
The total dollars on any long-term deal with Ohtani will scare a number of owners away. Prior to Ohtani’s injury, Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf said he wouldn’t bid for the star’s services.
But having the chance to secure a deal without that long-term commitment should drive up interest from any team that isn’t in a full rebuild – sorry, fans of the A’s, Royals, and Nationals.
Ohtani’s an elite hitter. He finished this season slashing .304/.412/.654 with 44 home runs, 26 doubles, eight triples, and 20 stolen bases across 135 games. His 1.066 OPS leads the majors, and he’s been worth 6.6 fWAR as a hitter despite being a DH all season – the fourth-best mark in MLB. He’s by far the top position player available in what is a poor free-agent class.
There’s an argument to be made that Ohtani could be an even better hitter next season since he won’t have to focus on pitching. However, at least early on, some regression should be expected with him coming off a serious procedure and potentially adapting to a new team.
Ohtani hit .286/.343/.505 with 18 home runs in 106 games in 2019 when recovering from Tommy John surgery. But that was a pre-MVP version of Ohtani, and he didn’t start that season until May.
If the expectation is that a team will get two full seasons of Ohtani as a hitter and one campaign as a pitcher, the contract should easily shatter the MLB record for average annual value.
Aaron Judge currently owns that record for the highest AAV ($40M) for a position player after signing a nine-year, $360-million deal last winter. On the pitching side, Max Scherzer inked a three-year, $130-million contract ($43.3M) last winter, followed by Justin Verlander at two years, $86.67 million ($43.3M). Both deals were given by New York Mets owner Steve Cohen, who has long been rumored to be interested in Ohtani.
After looking at those contracts, it’s logical to assume Ohtani’s agent, Nez Balelo, would look for a deal in the neighborhood of $90 million to $100 million across two seasons. That’s a significant amount of money for any owner to commit annually for one player – especially when Ohtani likely won’t see the field defensively. The flip side is that the long-term risk and salary committed are significantly minimized. If things don’t work out or if Ohtani gets injured again, it’s only a two-year risk.
Any team that sees itself capable of winning a World Series in that short window should theoretically be involved in the bidding.
The Los Angeles Dodgers, Texas Rangers, Houston Astros, Seattle Mariners, Toronto Blue Jays, New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Atlanta Braves, San Francisco Giants, Philadelphia Phillies, San Diego Padres, Chicago Cubs, and Mets are all teams that have shown they’re willing to spend and could use Ohtani.
Lower payroll clubs like the Baltimore Orioles, Miami Marlins, and Tampa Bay Rays could deem Ohtani as that one expenditure worth going for. The Orioles, who had an $82-million payroll this year, could sign Ohtani while their young stars are pre-arb and cheaper. By the time those players become more expensive, Ohtani will be off the books.
Of course, we don’t know Ohtani’s preference of where he wants to sign, despite it being believed he prefers the West Coast. Just like his first time in free agency in 2017, Ohtani will be free to sign almost anywhere he pleases.
Option B: Sign long-term deal with opt-outs
Ohtani has already proven he can make a full recovery from elbow surgery, and he didn’t need Tommy John surgery this time. Even though his UCL tear is in a different spot than his previous injury, there’s a track record of recovery that shows he understands the rehab process and can return to his elite level.
Still, there’s tremendous risk in signing any player in their 30s to a long-term contract. Teams need to weigh if the reward is worth it. So, expect any long-term deal to be unique with Ohtani.
The club he signs with could load the contract with opt-outs and incentives. This protects the team should Ohtani no longer be able to serve as a two-way player and allows Ohtani to re-enter the market without a qualifying offer if the club isn’t a good fit.
While there’s no precedent for a long-term deal with a player like Ohtani, there’s a bit of a template to work off of.
J.D. Martinez signed one of the more complex deals for a position player when he agreed to a five-year, $110-million contract with the Red Sox in 2018. Martinez’s deal was front-loaded and included opt-outs in Years 3 and 4 because of concerns over his back. Martinez ended up not opting out, and the deal was a win for both sides. Trevor Bauer’s three-year, $102-million pact with the Dodgers – before L.A. released him – was also front-loaded and included opt-outs after each season.
Ohtani could sign a five-year deal with opt-opts after the second, third, and fourth years. The team could load up the contract with incentives to ensure he’s compensated should he reach certain benchmarks like innings pitched.
Considering Ohtani’s spent six seasons in the majors without appearing in the playoffs, winning will likely take priority over the total dollars offered.
Option C: Sign long-term deal with no opt-outs
Free agency isn’t for everyone, and maybe Ohtani has no interest in going to the market twice in a couple of years. Bryce Harper ensured his agent, Scott Boras, secured a deal with no opt-outs when he signed with the Phillies for $330 million over 13 years. Given Ohtani’s talent, you have to imagine there will still be a number of owners willing to take the risk of a long-term deal to secure such a special player.
It was estimated that Ohtani generated around $10 million in marketing and advertising annually for the Angels. That number would likely grow even higher depending on the city he signs in. Even if Ohtani isn’t necessarily providing full value on the field, there are other avenues for ownership to benefit from him.
There’s a realistic possibility that Ohtani won’t be able to pitch later in his contract. However, there’s still enough value in his bat that a team can justify exceeding Judge’s total dollars. If Ohtani can pitch three or four years out of a 10-year contract, his value exceeds the $360 million that Judge signed for. And if he gets to a point where he no longer pitches, there could be a conversation about moving him to a position. He occasionally played outfield in Japan and logged some brief innings in the outfield with the Angels. Given his athleticism, it likely wouldn’t be much of an adjustment to hand him a defensive position.
But this isn’t just on ownership. Ohtani will have to want to commit somewhere long term.
He’s going to have to do a deep dive into what he’s signing up for if his deal includes no opt-opts. Signing alongside a generational player in Mike Trout wasn’t enough to reach the postseason. Any team would need to boast a track record of winning and possess a strong farm system that can supplement the roster over the bulk of his deal.
It may not even take the most money. Ohtani already sacrificed plenty financially coming over to MLB early, so there’s a possibility he takes less to win or to live in the city he wants. He’s already claimed individual awards and banked nearly $40 million in career salary.
So sure, there’s enormous risk in handing any player a long-term deal – especially one coming off multiple elbow surgeries – but if there ever was a player worth it, it’s Ohtani.
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