Image credit: Shohei Ohtani of Team Japan reacts at second base in the ninth inning against Team Mexico during the World Baseball Classic Semifinals at loanDepot park on March 20, 2023 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)
With free agency officially underway, all eyes are on Shohei Ohtani.
The 29-year-old Japanese superstar is coming off a historic three-year stretch that redefined what is possible in the modern era of Major League Baseball. He has the third-most home runs and sixth-lowest ERA of any player in the last three years, a combination of two-way excellence that exceeds even what Babe Ruth accomplished at his peak.
Ohtani became the first player ever to win two MVP awards unanimously and somehow keeps getting batter—his .304 batting average, .412 on-base percentage, .654 slugging percentage and .184 opponent average last season were all the best marks of his career.
Ohtani will not pitch in 2024 after having an unspecified elbow procedure in September, but he is set to return to playing both ways in 2025. Even with an uncertain long-term pitching outlook, even the chance he’ll pitch again—in conjunction with his hitting exploits—has him set to receive the largest contract in MLB history.
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The question is not whether Ohtani will receive a record-breaking contract, but which team he’ll choose. The notoriously private Ohtani has given little public indication of his preferences, but there are a few things that are known.
After suffering through six straight losing seasons with the Angels, he has made no secret of the fact his top priority is to win moving forward. He expressed a strong preference for the West Coast when he first came over from Japan and has made the region his home, where he is by all appearances comfortable and satisfied. His private nature and jovial personality make him a better fit for the more laid-back lifestyle of the Western U.S. compared to the pressure cookers of the East Coast metropolises. Money has never been his primary objective, but it will be a factor.
Here are the teams most likely to sign Ohtani based on conversations with team officials, his stated preferences and the overall landscape of MLB. While uncertainty reigns about his future destination, one thing that is certain is he will fundamentally transform whatever city and franchise he chooses.
LOS ANGELES DODGERS
Why it makes sense: The Dodgers are the perfect fit for Ohtani in nearly every way. They are baseball’s winningest team over the last decade. The organization has the financial resources to make him MLB’s highest-paid player. They have a legacy of Japanese stars. Ohtani wouldn’t have to leave the Southland, where he is comfortable. He’d play in meaningful games in front of sellout crowds almost every night. The marketing opportunities are unparalleled. The list goes on and on. While other teams check individual boxes for Ohtani’s services, the Dodgers are the only team that checks all of them.
Why it doesn’t: The Dodgers have an acute need for starting pitching, which Ohtani can’t immediately fill. Clayton Kershaw (shoulder surgery) and Julio Urias (administrative leave) are both free agents and unable to pitch for the foreseeable future. Walker Buehler is coming back from his second Tommy John surgery. Dustin May (flexor tendon surgery) and Tony Gonsolin (Tommy John surgery) may miss the 2024 season. The Dodgers stable of young starters is talented, but it’s also unproven. With Ohtani unable to pitch in 2024 and his long-term pitching outlook in question, the Dodgers may be better served spending their money on healthy starters.
Bottom line: The Dodgers’ match with Ohtani is just too strong, even with the uncertainty of his long-term pitching outlook. It will be a surprise if he signs anywhere else.
Chance of signing Ohtani: 70%
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Why it makes sense: The Mariners have a lot of the same factors going for them as the Dodgers, but to a lesser degree. They have three straight 88-plus win seasons, are in a major West Coast city with a large Japanese population and have a decorated legacy of Japanese stars. They project to be a contender for the foreseeable future and have the talent in place to support Ohtani. The strength of their rotation also makes it more palatable for them if Ohtani doesn’t return to his previous form on the mound than it would be for other clubs.
Why it doesn’t: The Mariners have not ranked in the top 10 in Opening Day payroll since owner John Stanton took over in 2016, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. In the last four seasons, they have ranked 23rd, 25th, 22nd and 18th. With a projected $143.3 million payroll in 2024, adding another $50 million for Ohtani would put them in uncharted territory. Whether the Mariners will add such a large salary obligation is much more in question than it is for other teams.
Bottom line: The Mariners are a great fit talent and geography-wise, but there is reason to doubt they’ll match other teams’ offers.
Chance of signing Ohtani: 10%
SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
Why it makes sense: The Giants are a large-market team in desperate need of stars and have the financial resources to make Ohtani a massive offer. They play in a major West Coast city with a large Japanese population, have three World Series trophies and a recent 107-win season to point to as evidence of their ability to compete. They will be extra motivated to land Ohtani given the team’s sagging attendance and lack of entertainment value. While Ohtani would share the spotlight with Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman in Los Angeles and Julio Rodriguez in Seattle, he would be the face of the Giants franchise and have the region’s massive marketing opportunities all to himself.
Why it doesn’t: The Giants have had a winning record only once in the last seven seasons and lack the talent to compete for World Series titles any time soon. Ohtani has made clear his highest priority is to win, and on that front, the Giants can’t compete with the Dodgers or even the Mariners in terms of recent success or future outlook.
Bottom line: The Giants have the motivation and the money to sign Ohtani, but their recent struggles and lack of talent will make it difficult to persuade him they present the best chance for him to win.
Chance of signing Ohtani: 10%
Why it makes sense: The Cubs were a finalist for Ohtani when he first came over from Japan and have a better shot now that the DH is in the National League. While they aren’t on the West Coast, both the team and the city of Chicago have a long history of attracting Japanese players. Importantly, the Cubs are primed to win after posting a winning record last year, hiring one of baseball’s best managers this offseason and building a top farm system that sets them up nicely for the future.
Why it doesn’t: The Cubs have a lot going for them, but nothing that exceeds the other contenders for Ohtani’s services. Their present and future outlook is good, but not as good as the Dodgers and Mariners. Chicago holds appeal as a city, but so does Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. They have the financial resources and payroll capability to offer Ohtani a record-breaking deal, but so do the Dodgers and Giants. Aside from their manager, the Cubs lack a clear edge compared to other teams in the Ohtani sweepstakes.
Bottom line: The Cubs are appealing, but without a clear edge in any key category, it will take a heck of a persuasive pitch from the front office to bring Ohtani to the North Side.
Chance of signing Ohtani: 5%
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Why it makes sense: Ohtani wants to win first and foremost, and the Rangers have the 2023 World Series trophy to point to as evidence they’re the best place to do that. They have a long history with Ohtani after trying to sign him out of high school and again when he came over from Japan, a significant factor given Ohtani highly values personal relationships. They also have a history of successfully integrating Japanese stars, most notably Yu Darvish.
Why it doesn’t: The Rangers have a host of large contracts with Jacob DeGrom, Corey Seager, Marcus Semien and Max Scherzer all set to make more than $25 million in 2024. Adding another massive contract will squeeze their ability to round out the roster in future years and may not be the right move for the team financially, even though they carry a high payroll.
Bottom line: The Rangers have the winning pedigree and personal history to attract Ohtani, but whether they will be able to beat offers made by the Dodgers, Giants and others is in question.
Chance of signing Ohtani: 3%
THE REST OF THE FIELD
The Yankees and Red Sox are coming off fourth and fifth-place finishes in the AL East, respectively, have been stingy with payroll in recent years and are located in East Coast metropolises that are poor fits for Ohtani’s personality. Despite assumptions that they are contenders for Ohtani because of their history and brand, they lack the winning outlook, cultural fit or payroll considerations to be favorites to land him.
The Mets and owner Steve Cohen have shown a willingness to hand out massive contracts in recent years, but the team has a losing record in five of the last seven seasons and is synonymous with dysfunction and underachievement. Ohtani wants to win, and the Mets don’t have the track record to credibly offer him the ability to do that.
The Phillies and Blue Jays are winning clubs with large payrolls, but both are located on the East Coast and lack the geographic advantages other clubs possess.
The Padres are cutting payroll and would be ill-advised to add another large contract, even for a player as talented as Ohtani. The Angels have the longest streak of consecutive losing seasons in the majors and have given Ohtani little incentive to re-sign with them.
Nothing is impossible, of course. But the aforementioned teams, as well as the rest of MLB, have significant disadvantages they’ll have to overcome in order to convince Ohtani they’re the best place for him to call home.
Chance of signing Ohtani: <1%