Commentary: Angels should follow Nationals' Juan Soto blueprint with Shohei Ohtani

·4 min read
Angels star Shohei Ohtani, left, and Washington Nationals star Juan Soto.
Angels star Shohei Ohtani, left, and Washington Nationals star Juan Soto. (Sarah Stier / Getty Images; Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

The Major League Baseball world was upended Saturday. That’s what happens when a player of Juan Soto’s caliber is said to be on the trade market.

The Washington Nationals recently offered Soto a 15-year, $440 million contract extension, as first reported by the Athletic. Soto declined it and, as a result, the Nationals have elected to begin entertaining trade offers on the generational superstar. They have until Aug. 2 to find a suitor for the 23-year-old outfielder or wait until the offseason to make a move.

It’s a stunning development. It shouldn’t be the only one in that department in the next few weeks. The Angels should take the same approach with Shohei Ohtani.

Ohtani, 28, doesn’t speak definitively often. When he does, it’s with a purpose. And last September, he said something that should’ve alarmed the Angels.

“I like the fans,” Ohtani said in Japanese. “I like the atmosphere in the organization. But my feelings of wanting to win are stronger.”

Ohtani spoke his mind two weeks before another Angels disappointing season ended. The club finished 77-85, in fourth place in the American League West, and outside of the playoffs for the seventh straight year. Ohtani had become an unprecedented two-way force. He would win AL MVP. It did not matter.

It’s more of the same this year. The Angels are a mess again even with a healthy Mike Trout in the lineup most of the season and Ohtani pulling more mind-blowing two-way acts. They fired their manager after a 14-game losing streak. They lost Anthony Rendon for the season. Their pitching still isn’t good enough.

Shohei Ohtani walks on the field after warming up before Saturday's game against the Dodgers.
Shohei Ohtani walks on the field after warming up before Saturday's game against the Dodgers. (Alex Gallardo / Associated Press)

Just a few weeks ago, Ohtani hinted at the Angels’ struggles after a win, noting that he felt he needed to pitch deep into a game because the bullpen was short-handed and the offense wouldn’t produce without Trout in the lineup. That night, Ohtani had 13 strikeouts across eight scoreless innings. The night before, he drove in eight of the Angels’ 11 runs in a loss.

Barring a shocking turnaround, they’re going to miss the playoffs again despite the field being expanded. That would give the organization one more year to right the ship before Ohtani becomes a free agent.

Instead, they should figure out what it would take to keep Ohtani in Anaheim long-term, if anything, and offer him that. If not, they should trade him to avoid facing the strong possibility of losing him for nothing after next season.

Ohtani is a singular asset. With a $5.5 million salary this season, he’s the biggest bargain in North American professional sports. He’s an All-Star as a pitcher and hitter. He’s a marquee attraction with a rabid fan base in Japan. That combination is tantalizing for World Series contenders. His value will never be higher than now, a season and a half before free agency.

But he’s encountered significant injuries that, coupled with his workload the last two seasons, could reduce the price teams are willing to pay, whether it’s via trade or in free agency.

“Best player we have ever seen,” a team executive said. “Only issues are injury history and age when he hits [free agency].”

There are valid counters for the Angels to not trade Ohtani. He's a reason to buy a ticket to the ballpark. He provides advertisement dollars from Japan. Most importantly, team projections can be wildly inaccurate. Who is to say the Angels, with a roster featuring top-end talent, won't compete for a playoff spot next season? Look at the Baltimore Orioles this summer.

But the Angels haven't been a legitimate contender since Ohtani showed up in 2018, and the haul they would receive for Ohtani could bolster the farm system with elite prospects for a future push. While Soto is slated for free agency after the 2024 season, Ohtani will hit the market after next season. That’s two Octobers, two opportunities for a playoff team to ride Ohtani’s unique ability to a title. The Angels aren’t in position reach those heights this season. Chances are they won’t be next year either. It’s time to make a choice.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.