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Yankees absolute dream trade target: Shohei Ohtani

The Yankees made an offer on Ohtani at this trade deadline; even with the Angels turning it down, he should remain a future target.

New York Yankees vs Los Angeles Angels Set Number: X164076

Editor's note: This piece was prepared prior to Jon Heyman's Monday afternoon report that the Angels have officially taken Shohei Ohtani off the trade market (and that the Yankees made an offer). However, Matt's piece below still makes for a more-than-worthwhile thought experiment worth exploring. And you never know! Maybe the offseason will offer a different picture for this nonpareil talent.

Every baseball fan probably knows the story of the Babe Ruth trade to the Yankees. Despite it being a bit of an exaggeration, the rough outlines go as follows: the owner of the Red Sox, Harry Frazee, was also a financier of Broadway musicals, and using the sales from a Ruth trade, totaling something like ~$1.85 million in 2022 dollars, put on the production of No, No, Nanette. OK, sure, the owner didn’t directly “use” the money to finance that particular production (it may have been My Lady Friends, or maybe not any single production), but it’s a really good myth and a really good story, and baseball lore itself is built with myth and narrative.

We are no longer in the age where baseball is a sideshow akin to the circus or a small Broadway musical. Despite what Rob Manfred says, investing in a baseball team is better than the stock market, which is probably the understatement of the year. Unlike the stock market, which is taxed in capital gains, a baseball team really creates wealth in the sense that you can mortgage against its value, structure it as to minimize tax liability through shell corporations, or just plain sell it. Each intervening year of growing value comes to you, gratis. If I bought the Yankees in 2002 and sold it today, I’d walk away with something like $5.3 billion. Not bad.

The value can partially be attributed to the structure of monopoly, of TV deals and regional sports networks, and locale. There’s only one YES Network and only one Yankee Stadium, and there’s only one New York City. You could ride a lot of good faith on that alone if you’re the Knicks, for example.

Yet the Yankees aren’t the Knicks, and that’s obvious when you walk through Monument Park. The nearly $6 billion committed to the Yankees’ brand is a direct snowball effect from that $125,000 they invested in Ruth, getting slightly bigger with each year, particularly exploding over the last decade. If we think of players not in 2022 dollars but in 2122 dollars, the best player in baseball, if applied to your brand, could be worth a number that we can’t even fathom using human logic. If the team were to grow at the same rate until then as it did from 2002 to now, we’re talking about the team being worth $200 billion, which was the entire nominal GDP of the United States at the end of World War II.

This long prelude was necessary because you need to get on a James Webb Space Telescope level to describe the effects of a Ruth-type talent to a franchise. There are maybe... four or five players who get on this level of Changing The Game As We Knew It. Ruth basically created the home run hitter, the engine of all economic value in baseball over the last one hundred years. Jackie Robinson, by breaking the color barrier, completely altered the balance of talent in the league, raising the level of play to a totally different and incomparable level. Curt Flood is responsible for free agency. Then there’s Shohei Ohtani, who essentially re-created the entire concept of the two-way player and the baseball player in general.

Ohtani has a history and a background that can only be described as Ruthian and so good that myth isn’t even necessary. The son of a badminton player and an auto manufacturing worker, he was colloquially known as yakyu shonen (野球少年), the kid who lives, eats, and breathes baseball. Drafted first in the NPB draft in 2012, it’s actually surprising he didn’t make the immediate jump to American professional ball, and opted to play for the Fighters for a time before transitioning to MLB. What an impression he made. In his five NPB seasons, he had an .854 OPS and pitched to a 2.55 ERA. He made the NPB All-Star Game five times, won the Japan Series in 2016, as well as the NPB MVP in that same year.

It’s hard to even describe the buzz and surprise in MLB circles when it was announced he would enter the international amateur market. Most commentators had grown accustomed to waiting out NPB and international players until the customary age of 25, the year when players become full free agents with traditional posting rules. There was also no new posting agreement between MLB and NPB, so if that had not been ratified, that also could have forced the issue until 2018. Yet Ohtani, the consummate yakyu shonen, had accomplished everything he wanted to in Japan and despite being subject to strict signing limits and an initial rookie salary, arbitration, and all the rest, he felt confident enough in himself to start from scratch. I can’t even stress how bold that was considering the numbers he likely turned down by not waiting the year.

It’s not uncommon for NPB players to have a preference for Seattle and California cities because of closeness to home and family, so despite some initial Yankees buzz, that faded as it became clear that the West Coast was Ohtani’s target for signing. The Angels, including former Yankees AGM Billy Eppler, were the lucky winners in the Ohtani sweepstakes, inking him for the cool price of $2.315 million to Ohtani himself and $20 million to the Fighters. We’re talking No, No, Nanette money there.

It took some time before fans truly realized that they were witnessing a sea change in baseball history, because just five days after his contract was finalized, Ohtani underwent PRP treatment for a torn UCL. Because there have literally been zero two-way players since Ruth, a lot of fans (including myself) were skeptical if this was all going to work. We were still in the glow of the UCL injury epidemic that peaked a few years earlier, and once again, there has never been an MLB player that sustained two-way performance for any length of time. It was generally assumed that He Would Have To Choose.

Despite all of that, the PRP treatment was partially successful and Ohtani was able to make his first start on April 1, 2018. He only tossed 51.2 innings that season and eventually did succumb to Tommy John surgery in October, but the vial-dropped amount of pitching combined with a batting line of .285/.361/.564 earned him a nearly-unanimous vote as Rookie of the Year. The Tommy John year kind of blew a hole in the myth-making, leaving him as a full-time designated hitter in 2019, hitting to a 121 OPS+. Once again, I think a lot of people were still skeptical and thought that would be his ultimate fate, combined with yet another injury, this time to his bipartite patella. 2020’s COVID year once again put off the full spectacle, which turns the clock now to 2021.

2021 was the year where we finally got to capital-S Shohei Ohtani, the Most Valuable Player. He hit to a mammoth 158 OPS+ while also throwing 130.1 innings of 141 ERA+ ball. It was at some point during that year where I think everyone had their Oh Sh*t moment of realizing that we were seeing the greatest baseball player of all time, and I don’t use that lightly. Fans and analysts and front office people had almost universally accepted that baseball was doomed to specialization—shorter stints for starters, LOOGYs, relievers, Openers, more designated hitters, and additional roster spots basically guaranteed that players were as plug and play as they come, a far cry from the more romanticized sandlot-esque days of free-for-alls of skill. Ohtani upended that entire dynamic, and made us realize we were all entirely wrong. It was possible, in the right doses of each, to be a two-way player, and a player doing it would subsequently be the best player in the league... easily.

Remember, though, that this was the Angels that acquired him, and there’s a reason why this is probably the most viral tweet associated with Ohtani’s relationship to his current franchise:

The Angels hit the jackpot of the century in having Ohtani fall into their lap, alongside Mike Trout to boot, and their response was a collective shrug. Owner Arte Moreno has gained a reputation for signing the star and surrounding them with a big bowl of nothing, and Ohtani, despite only being paid $3 million in 2021, looked like he fit right in. The Angels have not had a winning record since 2015, and despite beginning the season on a very hot 14-8 start in April, they lost 14 games in a row, fired their manager, and have continued to sag, essentially torpedoing any shot at the postseason. Toss in Anthony Rendon undergoing wrist surgery and Trout being diagnosed with a rare back condition that could put his entire career in jeopardy, and the team suddenly finds itself at even more of a crossroads than it was before.

While the Juan Soto news sent shockwaves across baseball, Ohtani actually being put on the market would be asteroid-killing-the-dinosaurs level of shock. That’s why those No, No, Nanette vibes start to fill the air when you read a passage like: “They want something like your top four prospects” for Ohtani.

The Mariners, to their credit, drained their farm system to acquire Luis Castillo and make a run at their first postseason appearance in 21 years. A team like the Padres or Cardinals may very well do the same for Soto. It’s way beyond logical to do the same for Ohtani, and it would be $125,000 in 1920 dollars kind of value if it ever got done (which it really, really, likely won’t).

For one thing, the Yankees don’t really have four top prospects, with Anthony Volpe really being the only player of actual, material value to get a serious haul. Jasson Domínguez and Oswald Peraza are solid Top-100 contenders, but they’re not in the same atmosphere as Volpe around the industry. Even in the imaginary Soto deal that could still be floating out there, the Yankees would still likely have to take on Patrick Corbin to balance out the value imbalance. Hey, maybe that would also include Rendon if a team wanted Ohtani.

You’re also talking about a mere year-and-a-half of this one player who just had Tommy John surgery a few years back. The floor is still really high, as we’re talking about a two-to-three win DH in a year he can’t pitch, but that could be a tough pill to swallow if you drain the farm and take on a large contract for a player who may walk at the end of 2023 anyway.

There’s a reason why I started this piece the way I did, and why it took so long to get to this point in the piece. You have to get to 50,000 feet to assess how big of an impact an Ohtani figure would be on the Yankees. Remember, Ohtani is one of the most important players in baseball history despite playing a large chunk of his games at 10pm EST. Put him in Yankee Stadium and we’re talking about taking an already large snowball and turning it into a financial avalanche.

There are a million structural impediments, starting with the Angels’ willingness, the Yankees’ general unwillingness to deal their best prospects, and other suitors to contend with, but it’s again one of those things that can’t even be quantified unless we can see into the future. Ohtani is everything that is great about baseball, Yankee or not, but even more so than Soto, or anyone in fact, you clear the table to see if you can make it a reality. It’s maybe in one universe out of a million, but one can dream.