Shohei Ohtani’s free agency was already going to be an event the likes of which the game had never seen. In the wake of the news late Wednesday night that he has a partially torn UCL in his right elbow, Ohtani’s quest for a new contract has somehow grown even more fascinating.
Ohtani will not pitch again this season, and in the event that he requires a second Tommy John surgery (he had his first TJ in 2018), his pitching future in general could be considered cloudy at best.
“It’s so impossible to say,” a National League executive said in a text message when asked how the injury changes Ohtani’s free-agent market. “Obviously no one has ever seen a player like this. Now, with the injury…”
That was followed by a shrug emoji.
“My initial reaction was, ‘Wow, this basically cuts him in half,’” another NL exec said. “I have no idea how a team could pay him with the thought that he would operate as a pitcher for the long-term [potentially] having TJ twice in a five-year span. He’s still a tremendous bat, and maybe he ends up being a bullpen arm too, but his value and his uniqueness take a major hit, obviously, with this news.”
Ohtani will seek a second opinion before deciding whether or not to have surgery. A number of pitchers have come back from two Tommy John operations -- Nathan Eovaldi, Jameson Taillon and Mike Clevinger are included on that list, while Jacob deGrom and Walker Buehler are working their way back from No. 2 as we speak -- but to say confidently that Ohtani will return to his previous level on the mound requires some optimism.
“I think it has some real impact,” an American League executive said of Ohtani’s potential contract. “Two-time TJ’s are more common now, but you will not have him pitching until 2025, so for one year you’re signing a straight DH -- and that’s provided he can start hitting right as the season starts. I believe it changes the math, but I’m just not sure how much it changes.”
Projections had the floor for Ohtani’s free-agent deal at 10 years and $500 million, a figure that may have been well short of the final figure. Regardless of whether he needs a second Tommy John procedure, some of the game’s decision-makers believe the chances of him becoming the game’s first $500 million man are now remote.
“Obviously the significance of the tear is going to influence his market,” another NL executive said. “But either way -- whether it’s surgery or conservative treatment -- I’d say it could cut into his overall contract by nine figures. Even if it’s a conservative treatment prognosis, those often have resulted in surgeries, so there will be risk associated with him no matter what.”
Masahiro Tanaka suffered a partial tear of his UCL during his rookie season in 2014, though the tear was minor enough that he never required surgery. We don’t yet know how severe Ohtani’s tear is and whether it will lead to surgery, though even if he is able to avoid a second Tommy John right now, there will always a fear that he’s one pitch away from the tear getting worse.
“I’d say too early to tell until full extent is known, but thinking it would either not change much on a long-term deal since I’m guessing there would still be plenty of bidders," an NL exec said. “Or it could potentially open the door to do a huge one-year deal to get the [qualifying offer] out of the way.”
While several executives believe Ohtani’s injury will cost him a significant amount of money in free agency, one NL exec wasn’t sure it would be as much as many may believe, saying the injury would have “minimal impact” on a long-term contract. Ohtani has no real peer on this year’s free-agent market, with Cody Bellinger, Blake Snell and Julio Urías among the other top names.
“The length of the deal will allow for him to be a pitcher for plenty of the time even if he misses time next year,” the exec said. “The only wrinkle would be if it ends up in the two-time TJ bucket where some teams stay away. I would still think somebody overlooks that with 40-plus bombs.”
Ohtani underwent Tommy John surgery on Oct. 1, 2018, then returned to his designated hitter duties in May 2019. Assuming the same type of timeline, another surgery would likely keep him from hitting for the first month or two of the 2024 season, though he could theoretically play more than half of next season as a DH for whatever club signs him.
Forgetting what he does on the mound -- which is a significant part of his legend and status as the game’s biggest unicorn -- Ohtani’s value as a hitter alone will make him a highly sought-after free agent. Since the start of the 2021 season, Ohtani has 124 home runs (an average of 41 per year), a .962 OPS and a 160 OPS+. He has led the AL in triples twice, has stolen 54 bases, and as of Thursday, leads the AL this year in home runs (44), runs (97), walks (78), slugging percentage (.664), OPS (1.069), OPS+ (183) and total bases (310).
Last winter, Aaron Judge landed a nine-year, $360 million contract after winning his first AL MVP Award. The Yankees superstar was fresh off of a 62-homer season that saw him lead the league in homers, runs, RBI, walks, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS+ and total bases, so there are some obvious comparisons.
Judge was entering his age-31 season in free agency, while Ohtani doesn’t turn 30 until next July. Even with the uncertainty surrounding his future on the mound, multiple executives believe that Ohtani’s bat should put him in position to match or exceed Judge’s mega-deal.
“The lack of position hurts him, but I’d put him in Judge territory offensively,” an NL exec said. “And he’s a better baserunner.”
While Judge is considered to be an above-average outfielder, Ohtani has made seven appearances in the outfield, all in 2021; aside from those 8 1/3 innings, he has strictly been a pitcher or DH. If he’s unable to pitch, would he work to become an everyday outfielder or continue strictly as a DH?
“It’s tough to sign a DH-only,” an NL exec said.
Potential suitors will also undoubtedly consider Ohtani’s popularity and the potential marketing opportunities that will come with his signing, though on-field performance is clearly the biggest factor when it comes to making a high-level financial commitment to a player of this caliber.
“The cultural impact is so huge,” an NL exec said. “Whoever gets him is guaranteed to get eyes and tickets out of it.”
Ohtani’s free agency was certainly impacted Wednesday night. Just how much, however, remains to be seen.