SEATTLE -- The Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes have been underway for nearly two weeks now, and at least somewhat surprisingly, there’s been little momentum in the market for arguably the most sought-after free agent of all time.
The industry belief is that the Dodgers remain the frontrunner, the Mets could be the most aggressive in their financial offer, along with the Giants, and the Rangers could be emboldened by their World Series title to keep adding. The Cubs, Red Sox and Yankees -- big-market teams looking for a rebound -- are also reportedly in the mix.
Other than that, it’s been mostly crickets on the two-way superstar. Perhaps that’s by design given Ohtani’s veiled nature, but at least in Seattle, the quietude is reflective of what’s taking place behind the scenes. Industry sources familiar with the club's thinking told MLB.com this week that landing Ohtani doesn’t appear to be within the Mariners’ realistic agenda this offseason.
Maybe that comes as a surprise, or perhaps not -- but it at least reveals a shift in organizational thinking from as recently as one year ago, even after sizable contract extensions to Julio Rodríguez and Luis Castillo in the final months of the 2022 season. At that time, the belief was that the club was anticipating Ohtani’s impending free agency and intending to make an aggressive push once this long-awaited moment arrived. To be sure, the Mariners were hardly the only club with this approach.
As president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto said at the GM Meetings last week, “I’m sure there are 30 teams that would love to see him come to their market.”
Yet, the pressing follow-ups are why and when things changed, particularly given how early it is in the offseason.
A few factors:
- Just how lucrative the cost will be.
- Where the Mariners’ budget stands heading into 2024.
- Allocating most (or all) of its financial resources this winter to one player when there are multiple needs isn’t within their scope.
- Pressing forward with the rest of those needs is the leading priority.
- Maybe Ohtani simply prefers other teams more than the Mariners.
It’s also unclear if these revelations were drawn via correspondence with Ohtani and his agent, Nez Balelo of CAA, after free agency opened on Nov. 5, or at an earlier time. Dipoto adamantly would not discuss Ohtani in the public forum at the GM Meetings, but it's worth noting that Dipoto and Seattle’s front office does regular due diligence on all players it targets.
The prevailing belief is that Ohtani -- who barely speaks publicly about non-performance-related topics, and especially free agency -- would prefer fit and flexibility over the richest deal. Yet it’s clear that he’s nonetheless in for a massive payday, with speculations in the $50 million range for average annual value.
The Mariners’ projected 40-man roster payroll for 2024 is currently near $150 million, per Cots Baseball Contracts, including the six players due for a combined raise of more than $25 million and those slated for raises via arbitration.
As for Ohtani’s fit in Seattle, even without pitching next year due to an elbow procedure he underwent in September, he’d represent a huge upgrade to a lineup that needs more consistency. And he could do so as a permanent plug at designated hitter, where the Mariners have received among MLB’s worst production at the position the past two years.
Yet, it’d also be imprudent to suggest that Ohtani’s bat alone would solve all the Mariners’ problems. Beyond Rodríguez, Cal Raleigh and J.P. Crawford -- each a Silver Slugger Award finalist -- Seattle’s lineup has more uncertainty than clarity. The club already determined not to extend a qualifying offer to Teoscar Hernández, underscoring its desire to replace his run production with a more contact-oriented hitter, or more.
The well-chronicled problem is that this year’s free-agent hitters represent “not as robust as a class as has been the case the last couple years,” Dipoto said last month. It all puts the Mariners into a pigeonhole of sorts after sitting out free agency for hitters the past two winters, at least at the premium levels.
“To that end, we're very comfortable the way we build rosters. If that's free agency, if it's trades, we're always pretty aggressive in that regard. The other teams will hear from us,” Dipoto said, adding that the Mariners have the resources to negotiate with other teams: “We have attractive pitching. We have a good farm system.”
It can’t be ignored that signing Ohtani comes with notable risk, beyond the basic affixed to all megadeals and the potential to financially hamstring a budget long term. Ohtani’s elbow procedure -- his second, after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2018 -- presents a legitimate question of how he fares as a pitcher long term.
Yet, this is an offseason that began with comments from players about adding more impact players, compounded by some confusion in the wake of Dipoto’s end-of-season commentary. And, fair or not, moving on from the Ohtani sweepstakes this early could create another point of tension as the team preps for an important season.
Things can obviously change in the Ohtani sweepstakes, but this is where they stand right now in Seattle.