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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: Shohei Ohtani

The unicorn is officially on the market

Detroit Tigers v Los Angeles Angels Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

12 years and $528 million dollars.

That’s the estimate, per MLB Trade Rumors, that it will take to sign Shohei Ohtani this winter. FanGraphs has him getting anywhere from 10-13 years, $450-527 million. It will be the most expensive contract in MLB history, an attempt to pin a value on a player type we have never seen before and can’t really project forward.

Ohtani isn’t so much the best player in baseball as he is its most unstoppable force. Aaron Judge is a better pure hitter, and Gerrit Cole is a better pure pitcher, but they each only do one thing. The combination that Ohtani offers has netted him 31.7 fWAR over his first six seasons, an AL MVP in 2021 and a likely second award in 2023. We have never seen, at the game’s highest level, a single player combine this much value — even Babe Ruth, by the time he became the greatest hitter in baseball history, wasn’t much of a pitcher.

Economic tie-ins are tough to measure in baseball since it’s such a regional sport. The best players just don’t command national attention the way that Patrick Mahomes or LeBron James do, and thus, the financial rewards for that attention are lower. However, Ohtani does command national attention, albeit in a nation across the Pacific, as 22 Japanese businesses purchased new ad campaigns with the Angels during his 2022 season. Watching Angels games have become an increasingly bilingual affair, as Japanese sponsorships are visible on the broadcast and in the stadium in a way that has never happened in American sports.

All told the upside to having Shohei Ohtani on your team is adding a weapon unlike any other in the history of the game, while making yourself available to a new set of international cash flows.

The downside, as it is with all unicorns, is that there’s a reason we don’t see ‘em. Ohtani’s rehabbing his second torn UCL in six years, and while veteran orthopedic surgeon Dr. Neal ElAttrache is confident the star will be able to DH in 2024, there’s no certainty on what pitching, if any, he’ll be able to provide his next squad. I do think, especially as he took real strides forward with his pitch quality this season, that he’s just pushing the human body beyond its limits.

Every engine has a breaking point, every wall can be broken through, and every cable can be stressed to snap. So much of Ohtani’s Angels tenure was about him doing the breaking, changing our ideas of what players are capable of and what they can provide. If he’s merely a DH, yeah you still get those international dollars and all the attention, but the less time he spends as a true two-way player, the less those sponsorships are worth, the fewer eyes will be on the team.

Everything about Ohtani’s value hinges on that ability to strike out the side in the top of the first and hit a 450’ foot bomb in the bottom half. He is perhaps the only single star that you can add to the Yankee roster and inject playoff contention back into the franchise, since he’s not just hitting behind Aaron Judge in the lineup, but pitching Game 2 of a playoff series after Gerrit Cole. If one of those abilities is taken away then you’re signing the equivalent of Juan Soto or Yoshinobu Yamamoto, talented players to be sure but just adding them alone doesn’t get you to where you need to go.

I’m not afraid to say I’m bearish on the remainder of Ohtani’s career, not to be a hater but simply because no one has done this, and the physics of baseball over the last 150 years have simply rooted out any attempt to do it at scale. Shohei Ohtani will almost certainly not be a two-way player in 2035; as with all long term contracts the hope is you stack up enough value in the first few seasons, plateau in the middle, and use that surplus to justify the back end, as players get worse and worse.

This is the plan with Gerrit Cole and Aaron Judge and for the most part, is working out well so far. This was the plan with Giancarlo Stanton, and it hasn’t really worked. If we knew where Ohtani would land between those two extremes, this would be easy, and frankly if we knew we were getting some more 150-inning pitching seasons the valuation would be easier to come to too. Instead, we’re the prisoners in Plato’s cave — no, John, I don’t want to hear about how I’m using that metaphor wrong.

Shohei Ohtani’s contract will be the biggest baseball news story in recent memory. I’m just not sure I want the Yankees to be the one breaking it.