Sunday, July 14, 2024

Shohei Ohtani free agency: Ranking all 30 possible landing spots as Rangers join Dodgers, Mets in top five

As of 5 p.m. ET on Monday, Shohei Ohtani is officially a free agent and able to negotiate and sign with any MLB team. The two-way star and likely AL MVP has a chance to become the first $500 million player in MLB history, even after undergoing an elbow procedure that will keep him off the mound in 2024. He is that impactful a hitter and that big a generator of sponsorship dollars.

Ohtani, who is still only 29, has made it clear his priority is signing with a contender this offseason. “It sucks to lose,” he said in July. Despite his MVP caliber performance and despite being paired with the great Mike Trout, the Los Angeles Angels never posted a winning record with Ohtani, nevermind reached the postseason. We’ve yet to see Ohtani play in October.

We of course ranked Ohtani the No. 1 free agent available this offseason. Here’s our write-up:

Welcome to the most anticipated free agency in league history. Ohtani will not pitch next year after undergoing elbow surgery to correct a torn ulnar collateral ligament, yet he’s expected to be in someone’s lineup as a DH come Opening Day. (He’s slated to return to the mound in 2025.) Ohtani is certain to receive a mammoth, record-breaking payday in the interim. Why wouldn’t he? He’s ranked in the top 10 in both ERA+ and OPS+ since debuting, and along the way has single-handedly shifted the Overton Window on two-way players. It’s fair to wonder how his workload will change in the future — perhaps he someday shifts to a relief role? — but that’s the risk you gladly stomach when you’re blessed with the opportunity to sign the kind of anomaly who invokes references to Leon Day, Bullet Rogan, Martín Dihigo, and Babe Ruth. “Destiny is the music of the improbable,” Kenneth Patchen once wrote. “Were it otherwise, almost anyone could exist.” Make sure you find a way to enjoy Ohtani’s tune this winter, even as the noise around him ramps up. 

This past season Ohtani threw 132 innings with a 3.14 ERA and 167 strikeouts in 23 starts before hurting his elbow. He slashed .304/.412/.654 with an American League-leading 44 home runs as well. Ohtani led all players with 10.0 WAR in 2023. From 2021-23, he was worth 28.5 WAR. It is arguably the greatest three-season run by any player in baseball history.

Needless to say, all 30 teams could use Ohtani. He’s a unicorn, 1 of 1 in baseball history, and he brings so much to a franchise both on the field and to the bottom line. That said, some clubs have a (much) better chance of signing Ohtani than others. Here now are our authoritative ranking of the 30 MLB teams as possible landing spots for Ohtani.

Tier 5: Not happening

30. Oakland Athletics
29. Kansas City Royals
28. Chicago White Sox
27. Colorado Rockies
26. Pittsburgh Pirates
25. Washington Nationals
24. Miami Marlins

For several reasons, mostly competitive and/or financial, these clubs have little to no chance of signing Ohtani. I’m sure they’ll make a call and at least express interest, but there’s little chance the game’s coolest and most talented player winds up with one of these seven teams. I have to admit though, I would get a kick out of seeing Ohtani in A’s kelly green on Opening Day next year.

Tier 4: Long shots

23. Cleveland Guardians
22. Milwaukee Brewers
21. Tampa Bay Rays
20. Baltimore Orioles
19. Detroit Tigers
18. Los Angeles Angels

I was tempted to place the Orioles higher in these rankings, though we’ve yet to see ownership and GM Mike Elias show much enthusiasm for spending money. The Rays reportedly attempted to acquire Ohtani at the trade deadline, and they did offer Freddie Freeman nine figures two years ago, but it’s really hard to believe they’ll win this bidding war. Not unless ownership behaves in a way it has never behaved with regards to payroll and overall spending.

The Angels are difficult to place. On one hand, they know Ohtani as well as anyone and they want to keep him. On the other hand, Ohtani wants to win and the Angels just spend six years wasting him and Trout. I don’t think the odds Ohtani returns to the Angels are 0%, but they are very close. Perhaps they are a bit too high and belong behind the Rays, Orioles, and Tigers. I would not put them below the Guardians and Brewers, however. Those two clubs do not have the payroll to support an Ohtani signing.

Tier 3: Squint your eyes and maybe

17. Minnesota Twins
16. Arizona Diamondbacks
15. St. Louis Cardinals
14. San Diego Padres

Wouldn’t it be something if the D-backs, riding the wave of their World Series berth, signed Ohtani? They came out of nowhere to sign Zack Greinke a few years ago, remember. It’s happened before. The Cardinals are desperate for pitching and might be a more serious suitor had Ohtani not needed elbow surgery. It’s hard to believe the Twins will win a bidding war. The Padres? They’re reportedly planning to cut payroll, though I would never close the door on GM A.J. Preller landing a big name. Put San Diego in the “unlikely but not impossible” bucket.

Tier 2: Should be involved

13. Cincinnati Reds
12. Boston Red Sox
11. Philadelphia Phillies

The Reds are an Ohtani deep sleeper. Are they going to beat out the big-market teams in an open market bidding war? Probably not, but they have a ton of payroll flexibility (Hunter Greene is their only player under contract beyond 2024), an enviable amount of young talent, and they play in a winnable division. Adding Ohtani would further energize a fan base that saw Elly De La Cruz, Matt McLain, and others debut this season. It’s unlikely to happen, but gosh, Ohtani going to Cincinnati would be fun.

I nearly nudged the Phillies into the top 10 because I don’t want to bet against a Dave Dombrowski team signing a premier free agent, though they have met their quota for DHs and then some. The Red Sox are difficult to pin down. They have a new head baseball operations head (Craig Breslow) and an ownership that seems to change its desires on a whim (build for the future vs. win now, etc.). Also, they’ve finished in last place three times in the last four years. Does Ohtani view the Red Sox as a contender? Either way, I suspect they’ll get involved and at least make an offer. I can’t rank them any lower.

Tier 1: Serious suitors

10. Houston Astros
Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman are both a year away from free agency, so the Astros may direct their efforts to locking up those two (as well as Kyle Tucker) this offseason. I’m not sure they want to commit to playing Yordan Alvarez in left full-time either. Still, it’s difficult to predict what owner Jim Crane will do. After all, Houston didn’t make much of an effort to re-sign Justin Verlander last offseason, then they traded arguably their top two prospects to bring him back at the deadline.

9. New York Yankees
The Yankees went 82-80 and finished in fourth place in 2023, so I’m not sure Ohtani will look at them and think “contender,” but they have the financial might to beat any offer. It seems likely the Yankees will do something this offseason to change up the vibes around the team and Ohtani is the greatest vibes boost the sport has to offer. Keep in mind Ohtani respectfully declined to listen to the Yankees’ pitch in 2018, when he first came over from Japan. It’s reasonable to assume they’re not his preferred destination.

8. Atlanta Braves
One advantage of having your entire core locked up so affordably is that you can back up the Brink’s truck when a player like Ohtani becomes a free agent. Having to put Marcell Ozuna in left field full-time would be suboptimal, though Ozuna only has a year remaining on his contract. Surely the Braves could make it work for one season, right? Ohtani wants to join a contender and no team is set up to contend long-term as well as Atlanta.

7. Toronto Blue Jays
I’m not sure any team is better roster fit for Ohtani than the Blue Jays. They have an opening at DH and badly need a middle-of-the-order lefty bat, and he will be ready to return to the mound in 2025, right as fellow countryman Yusei Kikuchi‘s contract expires and a rotation spot opens up. Ohtani is a perfect fit for the Blue Jays. Are the Blue Jays a good fit for Ohtani? They haven’t won a postseason game in the Bo Bichette/Vladimir Guerrero Jr. era, and no one likes having to go through customs every single road trip.

6. Seattle Mariners
GM Jerry Dipoto is already hedging this offseason — “I don’t know that the solutions to our problems are big-name players. I’m not sure that we have big problems,” he told the Associated Press last month — though I’m sure he’s feeling heat after an uninspiring offseason a year ago, and falling one game short of a postseason berth. Seattle’s 2023 payroll was roughly $20 million below its 2018 payroll. There’s money to spend, an opening at DH, and a need for a lefty power bat. And Ohtani has spent time training in the Pacific Northwest in previous offseasons. There’s no reason the Mariners should go away quietly in the Ohtani chase.

5. Chicago Cubs
The Cubs are on the upswing and at the point in their transition out of the rebuild where they should spend on free agents, and there is no better free agent to spend on than Ohtani. There’s no one standing in his way at DH and it will be easy to slot him back into the rotation come in 2025. Chicago opened the wallet for Dansby Swanson last offseason and they struck one-year contract gold with Cody Bellinger. Are they prepared to take the next step and give Ohtani a record contract? Is there a good reason not to beyond “it’s risky?” I don’t see one. 

4. Texas Rangers
A contender? Check. The Rangers just won the first World Series in franchise history. An ownership willing to spend? Also check. Texas has boosted payroll from $94 million in 2021 to $195 million in 2023. A young core built for long-term success? Another check. Corey Seager and Marcus Semien are in their prime, Evan Carter and Josh Jung hit the ground running this year, and 2023 No. 3 pick Wyatt Langford figures to debut in 2024. No. 4 is pretty high but I still might be selling the Rangers short here. Everything is aligned for them to be a major player for Ohtani. 

3. San Francisco Giants
For whatever reason the Giants have had trouble luring stars to San Francisco. It’s not for a lack of effort though. They made Aaron Judge a competitive offer last offseason and agreed to a $350 million contract with Carlos Correa, only for a medical issue to derail things. The Giants badly want to return to the postseason — manager Gabe Kapler was fired and replaced by Bob Melvin last month — and, after falling short with Judge and Correa last winter, they may make Ohtani a Godfather offer to get the star they crave.

2. New York Mets
No owner has deeper pockets than Steve Cohen, who has used his wealth to add major league pieces and also improve the farm system by eating money to facilitate trades. There’s a new front office led by president of baseball operations David Stearns and a clear desire to win. Financially, the Mets can match any offer. Selling Ohtani on the club as an immediate contender (and maybe on the East Coast) figures to be the greater challenge. There’s no doubt the Mets will be in the race though, and there’s no doubt Ohtani will use them as leverage, if nothing else.

1. Los Angeles Dodgers
Last month R.J. Anderson explained why the Dodgers are seen as the favorite to land Ohtani. Long story short, their preferences align. Ohtani wants to win and get paid a lot of money. The Dodgers want to win and are willing to pay a lot of money. As an added bonus, Ohtani would get to stay in Southern California, where he is presumably comfortable. You can never be 100% certain with free agency. As of right now though, all signs point to the Dodgers being the most aggressive suitor for Ohtani this offseason.

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