Two questions are going to dominate the next few weeks in baseball — and might come to define the 2023 season for a generation. Question No. 1: Will the Los Angeles Angels trade Shohei Ohtani? Question No. 2: If so, which team will make the deal required to get him?
The first answer can’t be known yet. That’s up to the Angels, to some extent, and to team owner Arte Moreno and general manager Perry Minasian. It won’t be a comfortable decision. The second answer, meanwhile, actually requires 20 or so teams to formulate offers. And those are starting to preemptively percolate.
With free agency approaching this offseason, Ohtani is ascending to a new peak on a mountain no one else has attempted to climb. He’s gunning for 60 homers while also pitching like an ace, which has him on track to log the 13th 11-WAR season since integration. All of that still understates how large he looms over the sport right now. His preeminence was going to be true regardless, but there is additional intrigue because for all his might, Ohtani has not been able to lift the Angels out of the muck of the middle. They are 48-48 heading into Wednesday’s game, with only a 10.8% chance of making the playoffs for the first time in Ohtani’s career. If the Angels decide that their opening for a triumphant October breakthrough is just too small, Ohtani could turn into the most impactful midseason addition imaginable.
Ohtani’s second half, in all its brilliance, is financially accessible for every single contender. He is due an even $30 million this season and thus would be owed $10 million by a team that acquires him Aug. 1, the day of MLB’s trade deadline. The real cost of acquiring him would be doled out in the form of talent heading to the Angels, and the team that meets Anaheim’s demands would get a top-25 starting pitcher and the standalone best power hitter in the game this season. Even that, however, doesn’t quite capture the biggest prize of trading for Ohtani — or narrow the field of likely suitors.
No, if you’re looking for the piece of the Ohtani package that could make the difference in those two questions — both whether he’s traded and where he goes — it’s not on the field at all. The most valuable thing in Ohtani’s second half, to the people making these decisions, might be the exclusive negotiating window his employer will enjoy before the biggest free-agent bidding war of all time breaks out this winter.
Not just a rental: Why Ohtani’s future affects his trade value
Technically, an Ohtani trade would be very limited. Young players and prospects would go out, and incoming would be precisely two months of Ohtani’s services, priced at that reasonable $10 million, plus whatever postseason run the acquiring club can muster.
In theory, that puts any contending team on the table. More specifically, it begs for the attention of teams that both have a postseason advantage at stake in the second half and boast appealingly deep farm systems. Logically, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal urged the Baltimore Orioles (currently running MLB’s 29th-ranked payroll) to go after Ohtani with their wellspring of young hitters and mentioned the Tampa Bay Rays (23rd-ranked payroll) as a potential destination. Those two teams are locked in a virtual tie atop the AL East, owners of baseball’s second- and third-best records.
Count me as extremely skeptical that either will wind up with Ohtani, despite the undeniably stellar young players they could offer. While they could certainly afford (and benefit from) Ohtani’s help this season, the Orioles and Rays just do not have any demonstrated inclination to agree to the mega-contract it will take to retain Ohtani beyond 2023. The Rays’ largest contract is Wander Franco’s $182 million deal — an early-career pact which notably covers his prime, not his 30s — while the Orioles’ high-water mark is the $161 million Chris Davis deal that did not work out well, to put it lightly.
Any team could decide to change its stripes, but more likely, Ohtani’s most serious trade suitors will overlap with the list of teams most serious about signing him this winter. Unlike most rental players set to hit free agency at season’s end, Ohtani’s future is so coveted that it is, at minimum, deeply entangled with his immediate contributions.
There’s perhaps no better evidence of this than Ohtani’s appearance on FanGraphs’ annual trade value list. No rental player had ever made the top 50 before because teams have repeatedly proven unwilling to give up future stars to influence outcomes in a single, inherently flighty postseason run. But this week, Ohtani came in 25th, with a nod toward the magnitude of his fame, international presence and budding historical import.
“Ohtani is a big enough deal to the game as a whole that owners, not baseball ops people, will be making this decision,” Ben Clemens wrote in explaining the ranking, “and the chances that one of them says, ‘Screw it, go get him,’ are non-zero.”
That’s it. That’s the only guarantee in this entire affair. If anyone trades for Ohtani, the winning offer will flow from someone saying “screw it.” And whoever is willing to say that will almost necessarily harbor dreams of ponying up to sign him forever.
How to appeal to Ohtani, the sequel
Every team is interested in accomplishing what the Angels did back in December 2017, when they convinced Ohtani to sign with them. But this time, there is a significant financial barrier to entry. Back then, you’ll remember, Ohtani jumped to MLB at age 23 for relative pennies instead of waiting two more years for the chance to make hundreds of millions right away. That created a sweepstakes in which he picked his first team based on softer factors.
In making that first decision, Ohtani solicited and reviewed presentations from clubs. He shocked many by narrowing the field to seven finalists that did not seem driven by money or any other single factor: the Angels, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants, Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers and Chicago Cubs. On the morning he chose the Angels, his agent said he felt a “true bond” with the team, then helmed by current New York Mets GM Billy Eppler.
With a new sweepstakes approaching, Ohtani’s thinking remains mostly mysterious. No one really knows how he will choose where to play in 2024, where to spend the rest of his career. While his prior actions suggest that money will not be the only factor, his next club will need to be comfortable playing in a sandbox guaranteeing record-breaking sums of money, which rules out a healthy chunk of MLB’s franchises. Early speculation has centered on the Los Angeles Dodgers, though reports indicate that Moreno does not want to trade Ohtani to the rivals up the freeway, with less frequent whispers mentioning the Giants, Padres, Mariners, Mets and New York Yankees as contenders.
For all the ways the Angels have failed to win with Ohtani (and Mike Trout), they have successfully created an environment for Ohtani to thrive in his own utterly unique way — by running a six-man rotation and allowing him to hit when he pitches and making space for untold routines that other players don’t need. Even if they fade further from the postseason picture, they will recognize their one leg up in attempting to retain him. They will ask for more talent in return than math or history would suggest possible. If their price is met, it is far more likely to come from a team such as the Dodgers — a team that thinks employing Ohtani now could be the difference-maker in employing Ohtani for a decade — than a team such as the Orioles, which would be looking for a difference-maker in one baseball season.
The teams that chase Ohtani at the deadline will really be chasing that extra quality time. Getting to perform the necessary adjustments for half a season, to maybe even improve upon his setup, could eventually be a significant point in their favor. They could convince him of their path to winning. They could earn emotional connection through a thrilling postseason run. They could form a “true bond.”
That part, the benefit of a more focused sales pitch, isn’t even far-fetched. Trade plus long-term extension combo plays have repeatedly and recently worked with stars, even if they were mostly offseason deals. See: Mookie Betts, Paul Goldschmidt, Matt Olson or Sean Murphy. Just last season, the Seattle Mariners swung a massive deadline swap with the Cincinnati Reds for Luis Castillo, then quickly signed him to a five-year, $108 million deal that secured four would-be free-agent years.
Now, Ohtani is not actually going to sign an extension when he could threaten the $600 million threshold on the open market — probably. (It must be said that his whole bit is defying any and all precedents.) But trading for Ohtani is a much more urgent proposition when it’s viewed as an edge in that second sweepstakes, when it’s akin to offering him a study abroad program instead of a Powerpoint. Someone running a deep-pocketed MLB team is likely to cherish that thought more than the usual quantified accounting of a top-50 prospect, more than the potential downside of trading the farm for two months of baseball.
Teams lacking the intent to pay Ohtani $500 million or more won’t feel that added oomph — and likely won’t be trading for him, either.