Ohtani questions, answered: favorites, sleepers, more

November 25th, 2023

Shohei Ohtani’s ultimate free-agent destination remains the biggest mystery of the offseason. As we wait for a resolution, we asked our experts -- Mark Feinsand and Jon Paul Morosi -- to weigh in on some key questions on the minds of many fans that relate to the two-time MVP’s free agency.

1) The Dodgers have long been considered the favorite. Do you still see that as the case? Would you take them against the field?

Feinsand: Although a number of teams are planning to take their shot at Ohtani -- the Mets, Giants, Cubs, Red Sox, Rangers and Angels among them -- I would still take the Dodgers against the field. Los Angeles has seemingly been playing the long game for the past year or two in anticipation of signing Ohtani, and even though he won’t be able to pitch until 2025, just imagine sending out a lineup every night with Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman and Ohtani hitting in the first inning. What a scary thought for the rest of the league.

Morosi: No MLB team has a better chance of signing Ohtani than the Dodgers, yet I do not believe their probability surpasses the 50% threshold. The Dodgers’ advantages are well-documented: Their status as a perennial playoff team will appeal to Ohtani, who has yet to appear in the MLB postseason. Their team physician, Dr. Neal ElAttrache, performed Ohtani’s surgery earlier this year. We know Ohtani is comfortable living in Southern California. And yet there are so many unknowns with Ohtani’s wishes that I view “the field” as a stronger prediction.

2) Is there a “dark horse” that fans should be paying more attention to?

Feinsand: It feels like we’ve been so focused on the Dodgers and Giants due to the belief that Ohtani wants to stay on the West Coast, but what if he’s open to heading east? The Red Sox have fallen out of the limelight in Boston, so what better way to get back into the headlines than to sign the best player in baseball? Ohtani is said to love hitting at Fenway Park, and in his two career starts there, he’s allowed one run while striking out 14 over nine innings. Just as Chaim Bloom’s tenure was defined by his early trade of Mookie Betts, perhaps Craig Breslow’s run as chief baseball officer will be launched by the signing of the two-time American League Most Valuable Player.

Morosi: I’ll mention two. The Blue Jays are serious about pursuing Ohtani, and Toronto (MLB’s lone franchise outside the U.S.) presents a unique opportunity for the sport’s foremost international icon. It helps that Ohtani owns a career 1.139 OPS at Rogers Centre. 

The Braves appeal to Ohtani from a competitive perspective. His best opportunity to win is with a franchise that has an abundance of young, star-level position players under contract for the long term. The Braves fulfill that category better than any other MLB franchise.

3) There was a rumor he might be open to a short-term deal, presumably so he can hit the market again after he’s shown he can still dominate on the mound. Do you think there is any chance of that happening?

Feinsand: I think there’s a better chance of Ohtani signing back in Japan than there is of him signing a short-term deal. That’s not to say that his contract won’t have an opt-out clause after 2025 or '26, which would give him an opportunity to test the market again if he returns to his high level on the mound, but when you have a chance to sign the biggest contract in North American sports history, you don’t roll the dice on a short-term deal. My guess is that Ohtani’s contract not only contains an opt-out clause, but also a number of creative incentives based on innings pitched and possibly even games finished in the event that he becomes a closer at some point during the deal.

Morosi: No. The interest in Ohtani is so robust that he’ll have the leverage of negotiating an opt-out if he wishes. Opt-outs have become standard in superstar contracts across the industry, whereby teams assume the greater long-term risk and players enjoy the benefit of a short-term commitment (if they choose). 

4) How much (if at all) do you think geography matters here?

Feinsand: This is the biggest mystery for some teams. As I mentioned earlier, we have no idea if Ohtani is set on staying out west, or whether he would be open to signing with an East Coast or Midwest club. I doubt we will hear anything firm on this from anyone truly in the know, because there is no incentive for Ohtani and his agent, Nez Balelo, to show their cards on the matter. Why say you are only considering West Coast teams when clubs like the Mets, Cubs and Red Sox might be willing to go above and beyond with their offers? Ultimately, I think he stays in California and moves up the I-5 to Dodger Stadium, but until he actually signs somewhere, any team willing to spend big should theoretically still be in the mix.

Morosi: Geography matters less to Ohtani than it did the first time around; broadly speaking, location is less important than other factors, such as organizational culture and the opportunity to win. He’s familiar with North America in a way that he wasn’t when he initially moved to Major League Baseball. He’d rather sign with a team in the Eastern time zone that has a strong chance of winning than a West Coast team struggling to compete.

5) In what month do you think he will sign?

Feinsand: December. Unlike in 2019, when Bryce Harper and Manny Machado saw their free agency drag into February, I don’t think Ohtani will have any such issue. There are a finite number of teams that have the financial wherewithal to pay Ohtani what it will take to sign him, and once he and his agent know which teams those are, it will come down to two things: Which team does he want to play for, and how high can Balelo get that team to go? I’m guessing Ohtani is signed by the end of the Winter Meetings, which conclude on Dec. 7 in Nashville, Tenn.

Morosi: December. Ohtani is such a unique player in the market that he can sign at any time. It’s not as though teams are waiting to sign Ohtani or an equivalent cumulative value in bullpen arms. In the strategic thinking of an organization, he occupies a spending category unto himself. That being said, Ohtani likely will realize that other players -- and the market overall -- will benefit by him deciding on a home within the next several weeks. Accordingly, I expect him to sign before the end of the calendar year.