This is the last week in Major League Baseball’s (MLB) regular season, and some spots in the playoffs are still up for grabs. While baseball soothsayers are busy predicting who will win divisions, leagues and the World Series, everyone is wondering where superstar Shohei Ohtani will end up next year. Since leaving Japanese baseball and joining the Los Angeles Angels in 2018, Ohtani has become an MLB supernova. The media even dubbed him “the 21st Century Babe Ruth.” Despite a torn elbow ligament that prematurely ended his season, Ohtani’s free agency in six weeks is certain to ignite a record-breaking bidding war among teams with plenty of cash.
An empty locker signaled the end of Ohtani’s tenure with the Angels. On September 15, the team cleared out the star’s locker, stirring a commotion in the sports world that almost universally expects Ohtani to leave a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in nine years. The Angels explained the next day — the two-way player’s season was over due to an injury that caused him to miss the last 11 games. On September 19, Ohtani underwent successful surgery to repair the ligament. He is expected to resume hitting in the 2024 season and pitching in 2025.
Ohtani’s remarkable ability as a power hitter and pitcher is what will make him the most sought-after free agent in the off-season. The team that signs him will essentially get two players. In 2022, he made MLB history as the sole player to win over 10 games as a pitcher and hit over 30 home runs in a single season. He also became the only player in the modern era to win 12 games as a pitcher and steal over 10 bases. Ohtani finished second in MVP voting to the Yankees’ Aaron Judge that year, only because Judge broke the American League’s single-season home run record. In 2021, Ohtani was crowned MVP of the American League after hitting 46 home runs.
Ohtani’s elbow injury derailed an outstanding season. He had bashed 44 home runs, just two shy of his historic 2021 total, and ranked fourth among hitters in the league, putting him in contention for the elusive Triple Crown (leading a league in batting average, home runs and runs batted in over the same season). No player has won Triple Crown since 2012, but Ohtani, a pitcher who didn’t bat every game, had a real shot at it.
Despite his impressive achievements since arriving in the MLB, baseball experts believe that fans may not have seen the best of Ohtani yet. “All professional players invest in their future, but he takes it to another level,” says Trevor Ray, a baseball analyst living in Japan. “I am 100% sure that he will come back stronger as a pitcher. Whenever he’s encountered a challenge like this, he’s always come out on top, exceeding expectations and dispelling any doubts about his ability to keep going as a two-way player.”
Ohtani’s recent injury may have deflated his value in the free-agent market. “There’s the injury, plus he won’t even be able to pitch next season. That will definitely affect his next contract. My estimate? Over a 100 million bucks,” said Shane Barclay, owner and president of JapanBall, an international baseball travel agency. Several teams are freeing up cash in hopes of competing for the free agent. Oddsmakers favor the Los Angeles Dodgers, who will probably say goodbye after this season to Clayton Kershaw, their longtime star pitcher. The Yankees, the New York Mets and the San Diego Padres are other big spenders on the hunt to land Ohtani. “Shohei has made it clear that he wants to be part of a winning organization, and the Angels are not that,” said Barclay.
Prior to the injury, executives from multiple franchises believed his price tag would exceed $500 million. Some even speculated it could reach $600 million. To date, only one player in MLB history has secured a contract over $400 million — Ohtani’s current teammate, Mike Trout, who inked an extension in 2019 ensuring he remains in an Angels jersey until 2030.
Ohtani has achieved legendary status in his home country, where he played for Nippon-Ham for five years. Baseball has been immensely popular in Japan since the sport was introduced by Americans in the late 19th century. While 67 Japanese players have made it to the major leagues, only three have truly reached superstar status. The first was Hideo Nomo, a pitcher for the Dodgers from 1995 to 2005. The second was Ichiro Suzuki, who had an unforgettable decade as a hitter and outfielder for the Seattle Mariners from 2001 to 2011. And now we have Ohtani, who embodies the qualities of both players. After leading Japan to victory in the 2023 World Baseball Classic (often called the baseball World Cup), Ohtani firmly cemented his reputation as a winner.
“He’s Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson rolled into one,” said Trevor Ray. “He can do things that seem superhuman. And on top of that, he’s always on point — a dedicated professional, the top student and the teacher’s favorite. What American athlete fits that description? I’m not really sure.”
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