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During the in-person courtship of Shohei Ohtani earlier this week, he met some of the finest players in Major League Baseball, saw entirely different worlds through the lenses of virtual-reality goggles, was told by one team its future essentially hinged on him signing and even inadvertently interrupted the honeymoon of a player who flew in as part of his team’s presentation. And, still, after all those hours spent with him, a culmination of months, even years, trying to understand what makes him tick, a number of officials left their meetings just as stumped as they’d been from the get-go.
The confusion turned to regret Friday, when Ohtani – the two-way star with the 102-mph fastball, the powerful left-handed swing and the audacity to try perfecting both against the greatest players in the world – agreed to sign with the Los Angeles Angels, bringing to Orange County the best player in Japanese baseball to pair with the best player in the major leagues. Mike Trout didn’t meet Ohtani on Tuesday – he was back in New Jersey preparing for his wedding this Saturday – but he did join the discussion via phone, and whatever came of the Angels’ two hours with Ohtani landed them their single biggest win since Trout dropped to them in the 2009 draft.
Ohtani’s agency, CAA, released a statement that attempted to explain why he chose the Angels, but it didn’t say a whole lot, and the Angels fired off their own 51-word statement, that short, presumably, because doing anything more substantive after day-drinking celebratory Champagne would’ve veered toward irresponsibility. And that left a baseball world that has obsessed over the 23-year-old Ohtani for the last month still trying to comprehend exactly why he passed up the immediate excellence of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago Cubs, the Japanese know-how of the Texas Rangers, the thirstiness of the Seattle Mariners, the familiarity of the San Diego Padres and the track record of the San Francisco Giants.
Eventually, that story will emerge and offer a greater sense of Ohtani’s priorities. For now, 26 teams that wooed Ohtani unsuccessfully sulk at his choice to join a team that still doesn’t have a second or third baseman, a closer and any reliability in its starting rotation. The Angels have been criticized, and rightfully so, for wasting the best years of Trout’s career by failing to surround him with representative teammates. In his six full years, here are the Angels’ American League West finishes: third, third, first, third, fourth and second – the last with a sub-.500 record. They’ve been a McDonald’s dinner with a truffle shaved on top.
Whatever. They got Ohtani. This was a zero-sum game, and the Angels won.
Though baseball isn’t a one-man sport, and Ohtani himself won’t take the Angels from mediocrity to October, it’s difficult to understate the enormity of this signing. The Angels will pay $20 million to Ohtani’s former team, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, for his rights and have a little more than $2.3 million to give him as a signing bonus. After that, he enters into the Angels’ system as a rookie, giving them a full six seasons of control at massively depressed prices. One high-ranking executive this week suggested Ohtani represents easily $100 million in surplus value, meaning his performance will outweigh what the Angels spend on him by nine figures. Another general manager figured it closer to $150 million.
Remember, that doesn’t presuppose two-way greatness from Ohtani. While four executives chasing Ohtani this week said they would happily find at-bats for him this season, all four admitted that the likelihood of Ohtani remaining a two-way player over the long haul were small. None of this, they all said, was a knock on Ohtani. He represented everything it would take: strength, conviction, intelligence, purpose. He is a baseball rat. He consumes the game with a savant’s interest and an epicure’s palate.
The specialization of modern baseball, and the rigor both sides demand, simply load too much on any player’s plate to make anything more than occasional DH’ing a long-term reality. And that’s fine, because Ohtani immediately will offer one of the best fastballs in the game and complement it with a panoply of off-speed pitches that scouts believe can make him a legitimate No. 1 starter.
There aren’t many of those. Clayton Kershaw. Max Scherzer. Corey Kluber. Chris Sale. Justin Verlander. The list may end there. That’s the kind of pitcher he can be.
And unless Ohtani gets full-time at-bats – which he’s unlikely to do with Justin Upton in left field, Trout in center, Kole Calhoun in right and Albert Pujols and his contract at DH – his utility as a hitter lessens by the day and hastens his eventual transition to full-time starter. Which is OK. More than OK. Ohtani can be a superstar without touching a bat.
For now, as he does, his novelty will intrigue fans hardcore and casual alike. Baseball will take every iota of marketing juice it can get, and a young, handsome, talented player with a deep and obsessive following in another country joining the Los Angeles media market qualifies. Anaheim is L.A.-adjacent. He can live the L.A. life if he wants. He can live the suburban life should he so desire.
Soon enough, we’ll know. Ohtani will reveal his dreams, his motivations, his goals – his reason for not waiting two years to come to MLB as a true free agent and snag a $200 million contract. We’ll learn that and so much more, like just how good Shohei Ohtani actually is and whether the Angels simply won or hit baseball’s biggest jackpot in years.
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