Major League Baseball
Why Shohei Ohtani’s fascinating free agency could land him nearly anywhere
Major League Baseball

Why Shohei Ohtani’s fascinating free agency could land him nearly anywhere

Updated Sep. 22, 2023 12:26 a.m. ET

Shohei Ohtani's free agency starts … now.

Nearly one month after suffering another UCL tear in his pitching arm, the Japanese right-hander underwent an elbow surgery Tuesday that prematurely ended his second MVP campaign and will keep him off the mound next year. A statement from his doctor, the esteemed Neal ElAttrache, did not make mention of a Tommy John procedure (UCL reconstruction) but instead a repair. 

Whatever the case, since we're talking about an extraordinarily competitive player who operates in the impossible by both hitting and pitching, Ohtani is expected to rehabilitate his elbow surgery in time to be in someone's lineup by Opening Day 2024 and be back on the bump in 2025. 

"It was very unfortunate that I couldn't finish out the year on the field, but I will be rooting on the boys until the end," Ohtani shared in a brief post on his Instagram account. "I will work as hard as I can and do my best to come back on the diamond stronger than ever. Go Halos!!"


Oof, those final two words. Might that be the last time Ohtani publicly expresses his support for the Angels? Now that the two-way superstar is on the other side of his cryptic elbow surgery, his free-agency standing has become clearer. And oh, how chaotic that process is about to be this winter. 

Despite his injury, the Ohtani sweepstakes still figure to be the loudest, craziest free agency that Major League Baseball has ever seen. Since he's now in a position to focus on his next move, let's unpack some of the key factors that figure to determine it.

The first element to introduce here is also the most important: We don't know what a 29-year-old Ohtani's priorities are — and there could be many of them — as he decides where to play for the next part of his career. Will he prioritize playing for a perennial contender? Does he want to stay on the West Coast? Will he follow the biggest offer? Does he want control, above all else?

Judging from his first six years in the majors, there are some strong reasons why Ohtani might want to stay closer to the Pacific Ocean. For one, it's where he's gotten used to playing and living, and the year-round pleasant temperature can help his velocity and ability to get loose. 

For another, the especially private Ohtani seems to enjoy the lack of media intensity involving West Coast teams (i.e. Angels, Dodgers, Padres, Giants, Mariners). The vast majority of big media coverage is located on the East Coast, and it's unlikely that Ohtani would be able to avoid facing reporters in the manner that he has if he played for, say, the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets or Phillies

Shohei Ohtani has locked up AL MVP despite heading to the IL

However, if Ohtani is determined to play for a perennial contender, especially after not sniffing the playoffs even once in six seasons with the Angels, he might have to compromise on geographic location. Since he signed with the Angels in 2017, there have been just a handful of teams that could be counted on to be in the mix every October: the Dodgers, Braves, Astros, Rays and, before this season, the Yankees. 

If Ohtani wants the biggest offer, well, no one is expected to beat Mets owner Steve Cohen's bid. Though the Amazins' direction for 2024 remains a bit murky, including who will be the manager, many in the industry still expect Cohen to be a major player in the Ohtani sweepstakes. And with top baseball executive David Stearns set to lead the Mets' front office, the club is better positioned to become a perennial contender. But that's not a sure bet. 

Control could also be a big priority for Ohtani as he and his agent, Nez Balelo, meet with teams this offseason. Look no further than his Angels exit this month, if not his entire tenure with the team. While indefinitely sidelined with an oblique injury, Ohtani emptied his locker this past Friday to the surprise of everyone in the organization, including staff and PR. 

The Angels had no explanation for the clearance, as it was their understanding that he would remain with the club in the dugout to finish the season. They also could not say what type of surgery Ohtani would undergo. All of it led to more confusion and chaos, and it's the result of giving full autonomy to Ohtani, a measure that seemed to only intensify in his walk year as he made $30 million.

Depending on where Ohtani decides to play next, he probably won't get the same amount of unchecked power that he had in Anaheim. The Dodgers, for instance, are a well-oiled machine that don't compromise much on control, and the result of their disciplined formula is 11 consecutive playoff appearances. 

As he faces another lengthy rehab, Ohtani's penchant for calling all the shots could be put to the test with a new club. His injury situation might also impact the length and annual value of his next contract. 

Prior to this latest UCL tear, many in the industry expected Ohtani to field offers in the range of $500 million. Those estimates, of course, involved him hitting and pitching full time. That now won't be the case for a year, at minimum. While Ohtani is aiming to pitch in 2025, it's possible that serving as a full-time designated hitter next season will slow down the rehab and healing process of his elbow and delay his return to the mound. After having Tommy John surgery in October 2018, he wasn't ready to pitch again until 2021. 

Given that he won't pitch next year, it's also possible that Ohtani would prefer a short-term contract — say, three years for $200 million with player opt-outs — so that he can increase his value before going back on the open market. He could even elect to emphasize his elite hitting prowess by choosing a home ballpark conducive to hitting home runs — even more of them than his AL-leading 44. We don't know if there's a magic number Ohtani is seeking annually or overall, but the uncertainty surrounding his two-way ability moving forward could weigh heavily in his impending offers.

Ohtani's injury could also open the door to more teams joining the sweepstakes.

It's no longer certain that he'll receive bids approaching half a billion dollars. Only a select few teams would have likely negotiated in that realm to begin with. With his injury, will the price drop so much so that several other clubs gauge his interest and enter the bidding war? Does this entice powerhouses like the Braves and Astros to go above their typical limits? Will there be a sizable gap in offers between the club assumed able to make the biggest one (the Mets) and the industry favorite to land Ohtani (the Dodgers)?

Ohtani enters this winter having just completed arguably the greatest three-year stretch in the history of this game. But his injured elbow likely evokes as many questions — and triggers more alternatives — in free agency as his performance provided answers. Really, Ohtani's landing spot could end up being almost anywhere. 

Deesha Thosar is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the Mets as a beat reporter for the New York Daily News. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Deesha grew up on Long Island and now lives in Queens. Follow her on Twitter at @DeeshaThosar. 


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