Off to a Dominant Start, Shohei Ohtani Visits New York As Free Agency Rumors Swirl, Price Rises

Los Angeles Angels two-way player Shohei Ohtani hits a single during the second inning of a baseball game against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park in Boston on April 17, 2023. (Photo by Kyodo News via Getty Images)

By Leif Skodnick
World Baseball Network

Just after the 2023 World Series has drawn to a close, another baseball record might fall – but it won’t be one that was set on the field.

No, the record that will likely fall is the record for the largest free agent contract in Major League Baseball history, the $360 million pact the New York Yankees reached with outfielder Aaron Judge over the last offseason.

When Shohei Ohtani, the unicorn who is both an outstanding starting pitcher and a fearsome batter with home run power, becomes a free agent after the expiration of his contract with the Los Angeles Angels the day after the World Series end, general managers across MLB will be meeting with team owners trying to figure out how much they can offer the Japanese star – if they aren’t already. 

They’ll have 10 days to contemplate the question before Ohtani can be inked to a new deal. Ten days to contemplate how much to pay a player who draws fans to the park and is instantly recognizable for his dual abilities.

This week, Ohtani makes his first visit to New York as the Angels visit the Yankees for a three-game midweek series, and though Ohtani won’t pitch at Yankee Stadium, the eyes of fans of both New York teams will be focused upon him this week.

Writing in the New York Post, baseball columnist Jon Heyman posited that the Mets are going to make a play for Ohtani come the offseason, noting that Mets owner Steve Cohen saw Ohtani pitch for Japan in the World Baseball Classic, and that Mets general manager Billy Eppler was the GM of the Angels when Ohtani signed there after being posted from Nippon Professional Baseball. While Ohtani didn’t give serious consideration to playing in New York when he was leaving Japan, it’s possible that his sentiment towards the city has changed. 

Bob Nightengale of USA Today noted last week that the Cubs are the dark-horse candidate to land baseball’s unicorn, writing that the northsiders “were the only team outside the AL West and NL West that were on Ohtani’s original list when he left Japan six years ago, and certainly, they have plenty of money stored up to pay Ohtani whatever he desires.”

It’s possible that Ohtani could be signed to a deal worth more than half a billion dollars. And so far, just four pitching appearances into the 2023 season, Ohtani continues to drive his own price higher with his performance.

“He’s better than Babe Ruth,” said Greg Maddux, the Hall of Famer who won four consecutive Cy Young Awards from 1992 to 1995, the first with the Chicago Cubs and the next three with the Atlanta Braves. He recently was at spring training as an instructor with the Texas Rangers, where his brother Mike is the pitching coach.  

“I mean, plain and simple, he is definitely, in my opinion, the most fun guy to watch in baseball right now,” Maddux continued. “He’s able to be one of the top two or three pitchers in the game as well as being one of the top two or three power hitters in the game. And I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like it.”

This year, it started on opening day in Oakland, where Ohtani went six innings, allowing two hits, notching 10 strikeouts, and giving up just two walks. The 26,805 who showed up to the Oakland Coliseum were treated to a show from baseball’s most intriguing player, and Ohtani also went 1-for-3 at the plate. For Ohtani, the stellar outing came just nine days removed from pitching Japan to a World Baseball Classic at loanDepot Park in Miami, capped with Ohtani striking out his Angels teammate Mike Trout to end the game.

He followed that effort up with a six inning, one-run outing at Seattle in a 2-0 Angels home win against Washington and then threw seven innings of shutout ball, allowing just one hit in a 4-3 road win at Seattle. A rain delay cut short his fourth start of the season at Boston on Patriot’s Day, where in two innings, Ohtani allowed one run and no hits.

His ERA through four games is 0.86, and if that isn’t dominating enough, Ohtani’s ERA+, which normalizes a pitcher’s ERA across the Major Leagues, is 544. As the league-average ERA+ is 100, that means Ohtani’s ERA is 444% better than the Major League average. In addition to his otherworldly ERA so far, he’s posted a WHIP of 0.905 and a FIP of 3.04 this season. At the plate, Ohtani is slashing .298/.385/.491 with three homers, nine RBI, eight walks and 17 hits in 66 plate appearances.

The big hitch to the Angels resigning Ohtani is the cost of keeping both him and Mike Trout on the roster. 

“They’ve made a huge investment in Mike Trout and Mike Trout is going to be their guy. But then Ohtani comes along and it’s like the greatest problem in the world,” Fox Sports MLB Analyst John Smoltz said recently when asked of Ohtani’s pending free agency.

With Trout now in the fifth year of a 12-year, $426.5 million contract, and the Angels carrying a roughly $212 million player payroll this season, their willingness to re-sign Ohtani is directly related to how much owner Arte Moreno is willing to keep spending. 

But if Moreno isn’t willing to spend on Ohtani this coming offseason, one of the 29 other owners will be, and the price will undoubtedly be high.

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