MLB free agency 2023: As the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes begin (again), here's what we know for sure

We won’t actually know where Shohei Ohtani is going to play the next chapter of his storied career until, well, he goes there. The enigmatic star says very little — even when he does talk — and besides, the years-long speculative process has now given way to actual negotiations, with all the discretion involved. Soon, there will be rumors to react to and maybe other free-agent signings to mine for clues. But for now, all we know is what has come before.

Six years ago, a 23-year-old, already internationally known phenom left Japan — years before he could make hundreds of millions more but years after he made it known as a high schooler that he intended to play in MLB — and signed with the Los Angeles Angels. If we go back to that first frenzied pursuit of Ohtani and work forward from there, we can recap what we do know about how the most interesting man in baseball will make the biggest decision of his career.

We know the seven teams he was interested in last time.

For his first foray into Major League Baseball, Ohtani solicited presentations from all 30 teams, asking them to provide information about their facilities, markets and organizational philosophies, as well as how he would be integrated. From there, he and his agent, Nez Balelo of CAA (who still represents Ohtani), narrowed it down to a final list of seven teams. This might be the most concrete piece of evidence available; along with the Angels, it provides a shortlist of runners-up who piqued Ohtani’s interest.

In December 2017, it was revealed that the Ohtani finalists were the Angels, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants, Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers and Chicago Cubs.

Because Ohtani chose to come to the States before he was 25 years old — when he would’ve been an international free agent — money was not his top priority. The Rangers had the most international signing money available, which could’ve helped explain their inclusion among the finalists, except that the next two teams that could afford to pay Ohtani the most — the Yankees and the Twins — were not among the final teams. So if what Ohtani liked about those seven teams at the time was not the contract terms they were prepared to offer, it stands to reason that some of what he liked then is likely still relevant today.

On the Yankees, in particular, their exclusion from the shortlist was notable enough that general manager Brian Cashman explained that Ohtani seemed to be favoring small-market teams and West Coast teams.

Cashman, of course, is still running baseball operations for the Yankees, but it’s worth bearing in mind that for many of the teams in question, the regime that recruited Ohtani in 2017 is not the same one in charge today. Take, for example, the Angels themselves. The team is now run by Perry Minasian, but Ohtani originally signed with — and reportedly was especially swayed by — Billy Eppler.

That could’ve been a clue this time around — Eppler spent the past two seasons running baseball operations for the New York Mets and seemed prepared to remain with the organization even after they hired David Stearns over him — except that he recently resigned (or “resigned”) in the midst of an investigation into improper use of the injured list. Meaning: The only man who has ever managed to sign Ohtani in MLB is currently unemployed.

In the end, Ohtani’s decision to go with the Angels was not that telling. After he signed, his agent, Balelo, released a statement noting that “what mattered to him most wasn’t market size, time zone or league but that he felt a true bond with the Angels.”

A true bond. OK.

Even so, six years later, there is a general operating assumption that Ohtani would prefer to be on the West Coast — closer to Japan. But even if Cashman was correct that the two-way star initially preferred a smaller market, that desire has since been replaced with something more pressing.

We know he wants to win.

Does it seem like we’re already scraping the bottom of the barrel? Everyone — especially successful professional athletes, and extra-especially those with the drive and determination to become baseball’s unicorn — wants to win. But over the past several seasons, as reporters pushed Ohtani to reveal if not where he would go next then at least how he felt about this then-employer, the motivation of wanting to win emerged as a possible counterpoint to inertia.

“I like the fans. I like the atmosphere in the organization. But my feelings to wanting to win are stronger,” Ohtani said of playing for the Angels as the 2021 season wound down. “That’s the biggest thing for me. So, I’ll leave it at that.”

After the team regressed in 2022, he told a Japanese outlet, “I have a rather negative impression of the season.” Through the lens of Ohtani’s always measured media presence, this was considered a reproach of the Angels.

This past season, with his free agency mere months away, Ohtani was asked at the All-Star Game how important to him it was to play for a winning team.

“Those feelings get stronger year by year,” he said. “It sucks to lose.”

That line of questioning has always been presented with implicit contrast to the Angels — a team that famously failed to convert six seasons of Ohtani and Mike Trout into a single postseason game. But now that Ohtani is again considering all 30 clubs, it’s actually more revealing than the obviousness might make it seem.

Not all 30 MLB teams are projected or expected to win in the immediate to near future — or at least, not enough to get to the postseason. The Dodgers, for example, have emerged as possible favorites in the Ohtani sweepstakes in part because it’s hard to deny their track record of 11 straight postseason appearances.

At the same time, Ohtani could still return to the Angels. Another major factor in his first search was finding a team willing to let him pursue his two-way aspirations. He has since sufficiently proven that it’s possible to both pitch and hit at an incredibly high level — which is a big part of his appeal — but the Angels’ general leeway in how they handled Ohtani should again make them an attractive option for him.

And yet, after getting lured into baseball purgatory in Anaheim, presumably this time around, Ohtani will favor a proven winner.

Where will Shohei Ohtani play for the next chapter of his one-of-a-kind baseball career? (AP Foto/Ashley Landis, File)

Where will Shohei Ohtani play for the next chapter of his one-of-a-kind baseball career? (AP Foto/Ashley Landis, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

We know he’ll be very expensive.

Another reason the Dodgers are atop the list of suitors: They had an uncharacteristically restrained offseason last winter — a decision that was seen as strategic, allowing them to save money for this year, when Ohtani would be available.

Money might not have been a major factor for Ohtani back in 2017, but expect it to be the chief differentiator this time around, as interested teams jockey to outbid one another on what is sure to be a historic contract. An exhaustive exploration into Ohtani’s value by ESPN last season gave a range of $300 million to well over $600 million, with the emphasis on the upper end. In most speculative stories written about Ohtani’s impending free agency, $500 million was seen as the baseline that would set a new benchmark.

But that was before he tore his UCL in August and had surgery in September, limiting him to one-way play, for now.

Dr. Neal ElAttrache, who performed the surgery, said in a statement at the time that he expects Ohtani to be ready to hit “without any restrictions” by Opening Day 2024 and resume pitching in 2025. How he fares during and after his recovery, of course, remains to be seen.

Between the injury and the surgery, Ken Rosenthal wrote that Ohtani is “still worth $500 million, if not more.” And while the injury might give pause to teams that are particularly in need of immediate rotation help, they’ll still be expected to pay up if they want to sign the star long-term. Even if the contract is full of convoluted conditions and incentives, it’ll still end up in a range that is realistic for only the top-spending teams.

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