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Shohei Ohtani free agent contract projections, Dodgers’ interest & the unknown

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Los Angeles Angels v Los Angeles Dodgers
“Andrew Friedman’s office is right over there.”
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The dominant figure looming large over this entire offseason is Shohei Ohtani, a truly one-of-a-kind player that baseball hasn’t seen in at least a century, if at all. He will define the next half-decade, if not longer, for one team and alter the course of the winter for the handful of teams that miss out on his services. The Dodgers will certainly be in the mix.

Ohtani carries an aura of mystery, as nobody truly knows what he really wants this offseason. Such is the case for a player who has not spoken to the media since early August, and even skipped the telephone press conference after winning his second American League MVP award.

There is even a question over what type of elbow surgery Ohtani had in September. The expectation is that Ohtani will not pitch in 2024, but will hit, as he did in 2019 after Tommy John surgery. From Sam Blum at The Athletic in September:

Perhaps the most notable part of this statement is that [agent Nez] Balelo declines to state what surgery Ohtani had. It’s hard to assess the outlook of anything without knowing that information. And it would be difficult to state with any certainty that Ohtani will be able to hit on Opening Day if he did get Tommy John surgery.

Presumably long-term Ohtani will be able to continue to both pitch and hit, but for 2024 only a signing team will have to settle for landing only the hitting Ohtani, who over the last three seasons has batted .277/.379/.585 and ranks fourth in the majors in both home runs (124) and wRC+ (157).

Ohtani the batter would be able to finagle a very lucrative contract if he never pitched again. Probably not the $360 million over nine years that Aaron Judge got last offseason, but not terribly far off.

Consider that Ohtani over the last three seasons also has a 2.84 ERA, 3.23 FIP, and 151 ERA+, averaging 25 starts and 143 innings since the start of 2021.

The Dodgers in 2023 did not have any pitcher with 25 starts or 143 innings.

Add in Ohtani the pitcher for 2025 and beyond, and the free agent contract could be record-setting in one way or another. It’s like the Pizza Hut commercial from 1995 with Deion Sanders and Jerry Jones, in which Sanders is asked to choose from various pairs and picks both in each case. The ad concludes with Jones asking if Sanders will sign for $20 million or $15 million, and Sanders again says, “Both,” referring to the $35 million contract he signed with the Cowboys.

Twenty-eight years later, it would be a steal to get Ohtani for $35 million per year.

The MLB record for average annual value for a contract is $43.33 million, shared by Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander in their three- and two-year deals with the Mets over the last two offseasons. Judge is the only other player to average $40 million per year.

Ohtani is one of one, and should be able to set a record in average annual value, because nobody else can do what he does.

Ohtani is only 29 years old, younger than Judge last year when he signed for nine years, and younger than Trea Turner and Xander Bogaerts when they inked 11-year deals last offseason.

Shohei Ohtani contract projections

Outlet Years Total contract AAV
Outlet Years Total contract AAV
MLB Trade Rumors 12 $528.0 $44.0
FanGraphs (Clemens) 13 $527.0 $40.5
ESPN 10 $520.0 $52.0
The Athletic (Britton) 12 $520.0 $43.3
FanGraphs (crowdsource) 10 $450.0 $45.0
in millions

To date, no MLB player has signed a contract for more than the $365 million that Mookie Betts got from the Dodgers over 12 years, with a caveat. Mike Trout extended his deal with the Angels in 2019 technically for $426.5 million over a dozen years, but at the time he already had two years and $66.5 million remaining on his previous contract, so his new deal was really $360 million in new money.

Ohtani has a chance to be the first true $400 million player, and maybe much higher. Signing him for a decade seems like the price of doing business, but again it all depends on what Ohtani wants.

To that end, Alden González at ESPN outlined a bevy of scenarios for the types of contracts Ohtani might consider, from the standard to the incentive-laden to the convoluted.

“The intrigue and uncertainty that surrounds Ohtani is exceedingly unique,” González wrote. “It’s a combination that insiders throughout the sport believe might inspire innovation.”

Roundtables at Fox Sports and the New York Post similarly run the gamut when it comes to Ohtani contract projections.

Dodgers interest

It’s no secret the Dodgers have long coveted Ohtani, and were in the mix for signing him six years ago when he first came over from Japan. At the time, the National League did not have the universal designated hitter, which was a disadvantage for Los Angeles. That gap has since been bridged.

Just about every national free agent ranking has Ohtani at the top, and has the Dodgers among his suitors.

Earlier in November, Jeff Passan at ESPN said this of the Dodgers’ interest in Ohtani:

They also have a history of signing large deals — on their terms. And with Ohtani coming off an elbow-ligament surgery in October that will keep him from pitching in 2024 — raising a legitimate question about what his future pitching looks like — the prospect of plopping down a half-billion guaranteed goes against how they traditionally operate.

“On their terms” is a good way of describing how the Dodgers do things. Ohtani qualifies in the same air as Betts and Freddie Freeman, Hall of Fame players who suddenly became available and the Dodgers pounced.

The Dodgers traded for Betts then extended him for 12 years before he even played a game for them. But his deal and Freeman’s contract both have loads of deferred money, making their competitive balance tax payroll number ($25.55 million for Betts, $24.7 million for Freeman) well below the average annual value of the contracts ($30.4 million, $27 million).

Whether the Dodgers could sign Ohtani for such a long-term deal with deferrals, or whether he might bite on a shorter-term, high-AAV deal like what LA reportedly offered Bryce Harper — for Ohtani, something like $50-plus million over three or four years? — remains to be seen.

The key will be providing what Ohtani wants, something which, at least publicly remains a mystery.