Occasionally after one of his rare poor pitching performances, Shohei Ohtani would enter the Los Angeles Angels’ dugout and joke, “Maybe just hit.” As in, maybe just give up pitching altogether and focus on the offensive side of the game.
Ohtani plans no such thing. His agent, Nez Balelo of CAA, is telling clubs interested in Ohtani as a free agent that he intends to remain a two-way player. But around the Angels, the common belief was that the Japanese superstar enjoys hitting more than pitching. And the reality of his current circumstance is that, after undergoing surgery in September to repair a damaged ligament in his pitching elbow, he will not pitch in 2024.
The biggest question in baseball — what is Ohtani worth? — remains unchanged. But the uncertainty surrounding Ohtani’s future as a pitcher after his second major elbow surgery in five years makes his free agency perhaps even more complex than it was before.
Interviews with seven executives from teams interested in Ohtani, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because the collective-bargaining agreement prohibits club officials from commenting on free agents, revealed a variety of opinions on the type of contract he will command, his potential impact on a team’s business and yes, his pitching future.
“I think he will come back. I think he will pitch very, very successfully for a period of time,” an AL executive said. “What I need to understand is, what is his desire to pitch? How long does he want to pitch? Nez is going to say one thing. But at the root of it, I think this guy’s a hitter. I think that’s what he loves. I don’t know how long he wants to pitch and how long he can successfully continue to do that.”
Said an NL executive, “I’ll bet on him returning. I just don’t know how long to make the bet. That’s the hard part. What’s the staying power?”
Teams have no idea, which makes it all but impossible to evaluate what Ohtani might contribute as a pitcher in 2025 and beyond. Ohtani, though, figures to at least provide some value on the mound, enabling him to continue as one of the rarest, best and most marketable players in the game’s history.
So much is at stake, not just for Ohtani, but also for Balelo and CAA. Ohtani, who turns 30 on July 5, last week became baseball’s first two-time unanimous MVP. He might have won the award three straight years if not for Aaron Judge’s 62-homer season in 2022. Yet during those three seasons, he earned a combined $38.5 million in arbitration, a fraction of the value he provided the Angels. Now is his moment to cash in.
Ohtani’s surgeon, Dr. Neal ElAttrache, said in his initial statement after the procedure that Ohtani will be ready to hit without restriction by Opening Day 2024, and both hit and pitch in 2025. Balelo has declined to publicly specify the type of surgery Ohtani underwent. The Los Angeles Times reported that it was his second Tommy John.
At some point Balelo will share that information with clubs, if he hasn’t already. No team will sign Ohtani for an expected guarantee of at least 10 years and $500 million without full access to his medical records. Any agreement also will be contingent on a physical examination.
Opening Day 2025 seems a reasonable target for Ohtani’s return as a pitcher. At that point, he will be 18 months removed from surgery. But a pitcher coming off a second ligament repair does not always progress as predictably as one coming off his first. Ohtani will be hitting while rehabilitating. It seems doubtful he would carry a full workload as a pitcher in ‘25.
“Even if he wants to pitch, who knows how much he’ll be able to,” an NL executive said. “There’s some chance he won’t get over the hump and is done pitching, whether he wants to (continue) or not. The other thing is, 30-year-old pitchers get four-, five-, six- and maybe if they’re really lucky seven-year deals. There is zero chance he’s going to be pitching as long as the likely duration of this deal.”
The Yankees’ Gerrit Cole, the reigning American League Cy Young winner, has completed four seasons of the longest and richest contract for a starting pitcher – nine years, $324 million. Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and David Price all signed seven-year free-agent deals in excess of $200 million. Only Scherzer provided an adequate return.
And none of those pitchers was coming off two major elbow surgeries.
If Ohtani was merely a hitter, he still might surpass Mike Trout’s record $426.5 million guarantee for a position player, a deal Trout signed as an extension without the benefit of open bidding. He also might surpass Aaron Judge’s record $40 million average annual value, even though Judge is a superior offensive force.
Such is the nature of Ohtani’s international stardom. And his talent.
“The offensive projection is so good — the bat tool, and also the running tool. I don’t want to say (pitching) doesn’t matter. But it almost doesn’t matter,” an AL executive said. “It is of some value, but it’s mitigated somewhat. He already has put himself in another category on his offense alone.”
Even if Ohtani never pitches again, he could be more than simply a DH. He played 64 games in the outfield in 2013 and ‘14, his first two seasons in Japan. He also has made seven major-league appearances in the outfield, all as a late-inning reserve in 2021 so the Angels could keep his bat in the lineup after he left the game as a pitcher. His cameos ended when Major League Baseball adopted the “Shohei Ohtani rule” in ‘22, enabling any pitcher who serves as a DH to remain in the lineup once his outing is over.
“I would argue if he’s not pitching, he’s at least going to play the outfield, maybe center field,” one executive said. “At least at this stage of his career, he can really run. And you would think he could throw well enough.
“It’s still paying a lot for a corner outfielder, especially when you’re paying some for at least for the prospect of him pitching. But that’s a little bit of a soft landing if the pitching thing doesn’t work out. He’s one of the best athletes in the game. He should at least be able to play right field.”
Ohtani’s sprint speed, as measured by Statcast, has dropped over the past three seasons from the 91st percentile to the 75th to the 63rd. He still stole 20 bases in 26 attempts last season and ranked 30th overall, just behind Mookie Betts, in Fangraphs’ baserunning metric. If Ohtani wasn’t pitching, presumably he could expend more energy running. Some with the Angels think he could be a Gold Glove right fielder. And that might be the worst-case scenario, if he could not pitch.
Paying $500 million for a right fielder perhaps would be ill-advised. Judge, who hit the market last offseason when he was 15 months older than Ohtani, hardly is certain to age well. But Ohtani’s ability to pitch is not the only fascinating variable in his free agency. His transcendent star power is another.
“Look at the example of Messi in Miami,” an AL executive said, referring to soccer legend Lionel Messi. “I think Ohtani is the same model.”
Messi, coming off his World Cup triumph with Argentina, single-handedly transformed Major League Soccer’s Inter Miami franchise last July, signing with the team for 2 1/2 seasons and between $50 million and $60 million annually.
Inter Miami plays in a temporary stadium. It had the lowest attendance in MLS last year. Messi flipped both the narrative around the club and its financial outlook, adding momentum to a project that preceded him — a new $1 billion stadium the team plans to open in 2025.
Soccer’s reach is greater than baseball’s, so it’s doubtful kids around the world will buy Ohtani merchandise the way they are buying Messi’s Inter Miami jerseys. But baseball operations officials from teams interested in Ohtani are not the only ones crunching numbers when trying to project his potential impact. The marketing and finance departments are at it, too.
Ohtani would mean different things to different franchises. He would not help teams such as the Dodgers and Yankees sell many more tickets. Both those teams annually are among the sport’s attendance leaders. But even for those clubs, one executive said, “there would be a halo effect on the brand.” The signing of Ohtani would energize fans.
Yet, at a time when the league is dealing with a bankrupt Diamond Sports, which broadcasts 11 of its 30 clubs, and considering direct-to-consumer streaming models, Ohtani perhaps would make his greatest impact as a television star.
Of the teams in jeopardy of losing their deals with Diamond, the Rangers and Angels are the ones known to be most interested in Ohtani. Signing him would give either of those clubs an instant path to a major rights package, perhaps creating incentive for them to bid higher.
The league also could benefit if Ohtani’s next team agreed to allow its broadcast rights to be bundled with those other clubs. If the league someday could include that team as part of a larger package featuring, say, 15 clubs, it could then market the package to the likes of Apple with Ohtani as the centerpiece.
“It’s all about eyeballs,” an AL executive said. “And he brings eyeballs to the table.”
The additional revenue Ohtani could generate for himself through endorsements and the amount his team could generate through sponsorships likely would vary from market to market. Forbes estimated Ohtani made at least $35 million in endorsements last season. The Angels do not disclose the additional money they made off Ohtani. ESPN reported the number was in “the low tens of millions of dollars.”
One thing seems certain: The amount of additional revenue a team projects from Ohtani will help define its threshold in the bidding. And likely push it higher.
Now imagine if Ohtani were healthy.
Pitching and hitting, he produced a combined 9.4 fWAR in 2022 and 9.0 in ‘23. Fangraphs estimates 1 WAR to be worth about $8 million in free agency, but some analysts believe the number is closer to $9 million to $10 million. By the latter measure, Ohtani was worth between $81 and $94 million annually in those two seasons.
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He would not have gotten that much if he was healthy. He almost certainly will not get it now that he is recovering from surgery. But the length of the deal and the dollar amount will be only two elements of his contract structure. Opt-outs almost certainly will come into play, too.
An ideal structure, from a club’s perspective, might be to give Ohtani a $25 million salary next season, a record for a DH, along with a conditional opt-out based on how many days he is active on the roster. If Ohtani opted out, the team then could void it by exercising a mammoth guarantee — say, $396 million over nine years, a record $44 million AAV. The team still would not be sure of his pitching future. But in a year, it likely would have a better idea.
The same structure then could carry over to 2025, when Ohtani presumably would be ready to pitch again. His salary that season could be say, $38 million. The trigger to void the opt-out would be larger, say, $416 million over eight years, a $52 million AAV. By adding incentives, the potential 10-year value could increase to more than $500 million.
Nice idea for a club. Balelo and Ohtani would never go for it.
They almost certainly will want far more of an upfront guarantee, as well as opt-outs starting once Ohtani has re-established himself as a pitcher, perhaps after his second or third year. The demand in the market should enable them to largely dictate the terms, and avoid settling for a structure that leaves Ohtani exposed to risk.
Here’s another, simpler way to look at what Ohtani might get. Start with a $450 million guarantee that would beat Trout’s record. Add $150 million in incentives to push the potential value to $600 million. First team to guarantee the incentives signs Ohtani.
How many teams would effectively be willing to gamble $150 million on Ohtani as a pitcher? Perhaps not many, if their heads of baseball operations alone were making the decision. But ownerships also will be involved, and some almost certainly will see beyond Ohtani’s pure baseball value. Just last winter, the Rangers signed an injury-prone Jacob deGrom for $185 million entering his age-35 season. All it takes is one.
An agreement at the winter meetings in Nashville the first week of December would be the ideal outcome for MLB, but not necessarily for Ohtani. He perhaps will be better off waiting for the signing of Japanese righty Yoshinobu Yamamoto, who is expected to be posted for free agency as soon as Monday, triggering a 45-day window for teams to negotiate with him. Losing out on the 25-year-old Yamamoto, who could command more than $200 million, might put certain teams on tilt, improving the landscape for Ohtani.
The meetings are two weeks away. The Thanksgiving holiday will interrupt baseball business. Teams will want to meet with him, gain an understanding of his priorities, gauge just how badly he wants to continue pitching, and for how long.
Ohtani has not spoken to the media in more than three months.
“I think it’s going to move slower than people think,” an AL executive said. “There’s a lot to be answered.”
(Top photo: Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)
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