Bowden: What MLB execs are saying about Ohtani’s free agency, and who is favored to sign him

Shohei Ohtani is about two months away from reaching free agency. Can you picture it?

His market is a popular topic of conversation among those in the game, but much is unknown. There’s uncertainty about how baseball’s best overall player will approach the process. There’s debate over how teams will value him, particularly coming off a major injury to his right (pitching) elbow.

Here’s what is certain: This will be the most-watched free agent in baseball history, and the most watched in sports since LeBron James took his talents to South Beach in 2010.

To set the stage for Ohtani’s impending free agency and get a better understanding of how it could unfold, I talked with more than a dozen executives and decision-makers across baseball, who were granted anonymity so they could speak freely.

On the subject of Ohtani’s next contract and how his elbow injury would impact it, responses from front-office executives were quite mixed. Several execs thought his contract would start north of Aaron Judge’s $360 million deal with the Yankees, then include escalators and incentives to get him into the $500 million-to-$600 million range — where most teams valued Ohtani before the injury — as long as it’s thought he can return to pitching with the same workload and level of success he had with the Angels. However, a few execs from larger markets opined that Ohtani is such a special talent and unique case that it will take half-a-billion dollars to land him even if he can’t be that pitcher again. They mentioned that he is going to be by far the best-available player on the market this winter and is the face of Major League Baseball and is a star whose global appeal will add significant financial value to his next franchise, plus the likelihood that he can fully recover from the injury.

It’s unclear when Shohei Ohtani will return to pitching. (Rick Osentoski / USA Today)

So, what do we know about what Ohtani wants? Over the years he’s repeatedly stressed the importance of winning, and that’s not surprising to hear from any pro athlete, especially a generational talent. The greats in every sport, the legends we know by one name — from LeBron to Brady to Ohtani — are going to prioritize winning a world championship above all else when deciding where they play.

There’s also been a lot of talk that geography will play a large part in his selection of his next team, but I’m told that’s not the primary consideration. According to an industry source briefed on Ohtani’s thinking, although he prefers the West Coast, the potential to win championships will be given more weight than geography, as long as a team is willing to at least match the best offer he receives in free agency.

According to that source, Ohtani will enter free agency with “an open mind and his eyes wide open.” That doesn’t mean if all things are equal Ohtani won’t pick a West Coast team over an East Coast or a Midwest team, but that outcome is not a foregone conclusion. Winning trumps everything for him.

Ohtani wants to be at the center of the biggest stage, which means playing on Halloween every year and multiple visits to the White House as a World Series champion in the coming years. That’s his goal.

Therefore, as I wrote in July, Ohtani’s time with the Angels is coming to an end. Now he’s not going to say that publicly. But it’s over. He’s spent six years with the Angels and they’ve never finished above .500. His next destination will put him back in the spotlight where he belongs. It’s where he was during the 2023 World Baseball Classic, when he won the championship for Japan by striking out Mike Trout with the game on the line in the ninth inning.

So when I think about this offseason, this is what I picture: Ohtani is going to become the highest paid player in MLB history and sign the sport’s first half-a-billion-dollar contract. (Remember, it only takes one owner to get him there.)

He’s just too good of a player, too big of a brand, just too valuable — in every sense of the word, including the financial value he’ll pass on to his next club. And, yes, I believe that even after the elbow injury.

His agent, Nez Balelo from CAA, provided an update on Ohtani’s injury this past week, telling the media that this injury is in a completely different spot than the 2018 injury that required Tommy John surgery and saying they are exploring multiple options for treatment. Although Balelo said he thought some type of procedure is “inevitable,” he stressed that they “all feel extremely positive based on the information that we’re getting, that he’s going to be fine.”

“The way that the timetable is going to play out, he’s going to be fine when the bell rings in 2024,” Balelo added, referring to Opening Day.

Questions remain about Ohtani’s injury, including what type of procedure he’ll receive, the corresponding timeline for his recovery, and when he will return as a pitcher, but even as “only” a DH for the 2024 season, with a potential return to pitching in the ’24 postseason, he is still a historic talent who will be entering his age-29 season.

Some are still speculating that Ohtani will have to take a drastic discount from what he was going to receive in free agency before the injury, but I think that’s false. He’s going to get paid. Ohtani is a game-changer for every major-league team, and quite frankly, I think a third of the league could afford to pay him $50 million a year and still have the resources to roster a contending team.

Therefore, understanding the financial commitment it could take to sign Ohtani, and the most important criteria to him — which is winning — here are the teams that I think are most likely to land him this winter.

The 10 most likely landing spots for Shohei Ohtani

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In about two months, Ohtani’s much-awaited free agency will commence. (Wendell Cruz / USA Today)

1. Los Angeles Dodgers (Owner: Mark Walter)

The Dodgers worked to stay under the first luxury tax threshold ($233 million) to put themselves in better position to sign Ohtani this offseason, though the arbiter’s decision to reduce Trevor Bauer’s suspension ended up pushing them into the tax. Still, team owner Mark Walter has never let finances limit president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman’s efforts to make the Dodgers better, and I can’t imagine him doing so in a pursuit of Ohtani.

Can you imagine Ohtani in between Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman in their lineup? Is there a better Hollywood script than the Dodgers landing Shohei in free agency? The perennial World Series contenders have finished in first place in 10 of the past 11 years, making the playoffs in all of them, and winning more than 100 games in four of the past seven seasons.

2. Texas Rangers (Owner: Ray C. Davis)

The Rangers have been on a free-agent spending spree the past couple of offseasons, landing superstars Jacob deGrom, Corey Seager and Marcus Semien, among others. Davis is committed to providing manager Bruce Bochy, a three-time World Series champion, with a team that’s capable of winning a title. How about putting Ohtani in the Rangers’ lineup after Semien and Seager and before Adolis García and Josh Jung for the next several years? Or potentially being able to start deGrom, who is recovering from his own elbow surgery, in a Game 1 and Ohtani in Game 2 in a postseason series next October?

Sign Ohtani, build up the bullpen, and the Rangers will be scary.

3. Seattle Mariners (Owner: John Stanton)

The Mariners are a real sleeper team to sign Ohtani. They have a young starting rotation that should be together for years to come, which will make them perennial contenders. They have a bona fide young superstar in Julio Rodríguez, who paired with Ohtani would give Seattle the same type of dominant duo that Betts and Freeman have given the Dodgers and Ronald Acuña Jr. and Matt Olson have given the Braves.

Ohtani has spent parts of his offseasons in Seattle and likes the area. During the All-Star Game, Mariners fans showed him the love and pulled at his heartstrings with loud chants imploring him to sign with the team. It also can’t hurt that Ohtani is a huge fan of Ichiro Suzuki, who will be pushing for him to sign there.

The big question with Seattle: Will team owner John Stanton bid what the market dictates to land Ohtani? The Mariners’ short- and long-term future, baseball wise, is certainly good enough to fulfill the superstar’s desire to play for a winner, but will they spend?

4. New York Mets (Owner: Steve Cohen)

Steve Cohen is the wealthiest owner in baseball and has proved he’ll outspend, outthink and outmaneuver the competition when he wants something. In addition, the Mets’ general manager, Billy Eppler, signed Ohtani when he was running the Angels. Eppler made several trips to Japan to recruit Ohtani back then and has stayed in touch with him since, including when the Angels visited the Mets last weekend. The Mets are committed to building their franchise through player development and scouting, but won’t be afraid to have one of the game’s highest payrolls at the same time. If they were willing to pay both Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer $43.3 million per year, they’d likely be willing to commit $50 million or more a year for Ohtani services.

The difficult part for the Mets in the short term is dealing with the powerful Braves in the NL East. However, with strong backing from ownership, they’ll still be a legitimate wild-card contender for the next couple of years as they work to catch up to Atlanta.

5. Boston Red Sox (Owner: John W. Henry)

The baseball gods might be looking down on the Red Sox and preparing to redeem them, all these years later, for trading Babe Ruth to the Yankees. So, perhaps it’s in the cards for Ohtani, this generation’s Ruth, to come to Boston and finish his career at Fenway Park — to make up for Ruth finishing his career at Yankee Stadium.

OK, that tantalizing storyline aside, Fenway Park has always been a haven for left-handed hitters, from Carl Yastrzemski to Fred Lynn to David Ortiz to Rafael Devers. With the Red Sox needing another middle-of-the-order bat and a top-of-the-rotation starter, the fit is obvious. Chris Sale’s $27.5 million salary comes off the books after 2024, so the Red Sox should have financial room to make an Ohtani deal work if they want to go down that road.

6. San Diego Padres (Owner: Peter Seidler)

The Padres have been wheeling-and-dealing under owner Peter Seidler and have signed several star players to large contracts over the last few years, from Manny Machado to Xander Bogaerts to Yu Darvish. So, it shouldn’t surprise us if they decide to also bid on Ohtani, although it would probably mean they’d have to trade Juan Soto to make it work financially. On the other hand, given their disappointing season, the Padres might be hesitant to go down the superstar path again. However, for Ohtani, you could certainly make a case that the Padres should contend for the next several years, and San Diego is one of the most beautiful cities in America.

7. San Francisco Giants (Owner: Larry Baer)

The Giants have long wanted to sign a superstar, but haven’t been able to do it for years. Last offseason, they were the highest bidder for Judge, but he was able to get the Yankees to match the offer; then they were the highest bidder for Carlos Correa, until disagreement over his medical records nixed a deal. They’ll try to land that elusive superstar again this offseason and Ohtani will be the headliner. The Giants have the resources to be a high bidder on Ohtani, but they might have trouble convincing him they’re positioned to win championships over the next several years; that will be their biggest challenge.

8. Chicago Cubs (Owner: Thomas S. Ricketts)

The Cubs have been a surprise team this year and look like they’re going to make the playoffs as a wild-card entry, thanks to shrewd moves by president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer and GM Carter Hawkins. Ricketts has the resources to sign Ohtani but will leave it up to Hoyer to decide whether they want to spend it on Ohtani or spread it around to several players instead. Based on Hoyer’s history, I would lean toward thinking he won’t want to spend that much on any one player, but time will tell. The atmosphere at Wrigley Field and the fact that Chicago is by far the largest market in the NL Central would work in their favor if the Cubs decide to make a run at him.

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The Phillie Phanatic attempted to woo Ohtani during a recent series in Philadelphia. (Kyle Ross / USA Today)

9. Philadelphia Phillies (Owner: John Middleton)

Dave Dombrowski’s calling card has always been building teams around superstars and then filling in around them with above-average or average players. Dombrowski, the Phillies’ president of baseball operations, has done it with Miami, Detroit, Boston and now Philadelphia, making it to the World Series with all four organizations. Therefore, although they already have huge contracts and stars on their roster, the Phillies possibly making a run at Ohtani shouldn’t be ignored. Although the Phillies strongly prefer to use Schwarber as a DH, they know they can win with him in left field, and they control him for only two more seasons after 2023. Aaron Nola is a free agent, and they could allocate his dollars toward Ohtani, who could replace him as a Game 2 starter, behind Zack Wheeler, next October.

10. Toronto Blue Jays (Owner: Rogers Communications)

The Blue Jays should really be called the Canada Blue Jays because they are the baseball team for an entire country. Their ownership has the resources to sign Ohtani, and can you imagine him in between Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in their lineup next season? The Blue Jays have really needed one more impact bat, preferably a left-handed hitter, and there can’t be a better fit for them in that regard than Ohtani. The international impact for Toronto and Canada if the Blue Jays were to sign Ohtani would be amazing, and would really increase the value of the franchise. One potential stumbling block: The Blue Jays haven’t been able to extend the contracts of either Bichette or Guerrero, and it might be difficult to sign Ohtani without extending them first.

Five possible ‘mystery teams’ who could land Shohei Ohtani

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Ohtani flips his bat after homering against the Yankees in July. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea / USA Today)

1. New York Yankees

The Yankees have Giancarlo Stanton signed through 2027 to be their DH, and he’s too fragile to move to an outfield corner full-time at this point in his career. His sizable contract, which includes a no-trade provision, is not tradable. In addition, with other huge contracts for Judge, Gerrit Cole, and Carlos Rodón on the books, I just can’t see owner Hal Steinbrenner pursuing Ohtani. If his father, the late George M. Steinbrenner, were still alive, I would have made the Yankees the favorite to sign Ohtani, but with Hal calling the shots, I just don’t see it based on their existing contract commitments. That being said, they are the Yankees, so they have to be mentioned as a possible mystery team.

2. Atlanta Braves

The Braves have put together the best team in baseball and have done it affordably. As much as they’d like Ohtani to join the top of their rotation, I don’t see the Braves playing in the half-a-billion-dollar playground when their team is good enough to win without him.

3. Houston Astros

The Astros have shied away from long-term contracts and were willing to say goodbye to stars like Corrrea and George Springer when they asked for them. They also haven’t been willing to give All-Star right fielder Kyle Tucker a market-rate contract. I just can’t see them dipping into the Ohtani waters based on their track record.

4. Washington Nationals

The Lerner family, which owns the Nationals, offered Juan Soto more than $400 million dollars before trading him last year, and they have plenty of payroll space if they want to chase Ohtani. The Nationals’ rebuild is on schedule, their farm system is strong, and if Ohtani is willing to lose for two more years (a big if), they should be ready to win for the final seven or eight years of his next contract. However, the sale of the team would be a complicating factor.

5. St. Louis Cardinals

If the Cardinals are convinced that Ohtani’s medicals puts him back on the mound as an ace at the end of 2024 or the beginning of 2025, they could decide to play in his market because they need an ace to become contenders again. However, I think they’re more likely to spread the money around to three starters than use it all on one — even if it is the great Shohei.

The Ohtani free-agent sweepstakes will begin in November and the teams with the best shot to sign him will be the organizations that have the best chance of winning over the next decade and are willing to pony up approximately $500 million.

It’s going to be a fun offseason and Ohtani will be the headliner. Where do you think he’ll land?

(Top photo: Jim McIsaac / Getty Images)

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