There has never been a player like Shohei Ohtani, which promises to make the next two weeks just about the most anticipated lead-up to a trade deadline in MLB history. There is no precedent for trading a player of his singular skillset, adding further intrigue to a deadline already clouded in uncertainty thanks to the expanded playoff format.
2023 Batting Stats: 419 PA, .306/.391/.677, 35 HR (league lead), 75 RBI, 11 SB, 12.2% BB%, 22.2% K%, 184 wRC+, 4.6 fWAR
2023 Pitching Stats: 18 GS, 105.1 IP, 3.50 ERA (128 ERA+), 3.97 FIP, 11.9 K/9, 3.9 BB/9, 1.2 HR/9, 1.120 WHIP, 1.9 fWAR
Contract Status: Earning $30 million in final year of arbitration eligibility. Free agent following 2023 season.
It’s no exaggeration to say that for stretches over the past three seasons, Ohtani has been either the best hitter or best pitcher in the league. He has raced past Mike Trout as the Angels’ most valuable player, leading the team last year in plate appearances and innings pitched — a feat last achieved almost 150 years ago. Since his debut in 2018, he’s won the 2021 AL MVP, finished runner-up in 2022, hit the eighth-most home runs (162) in MLB — and that’s having missed a third of 2018 and 2019 to Tommy John surgery — and owns the sixth-highest strikeout rate (31.3 percent) among starting pitchers with at least 450 IP.
We all know how singularly talented Ohtani is. Therefore, it would not be entirely productive to regurgitate the stats that are a click away or even rehash all the ways he is reshaping our understanding of what is possible on a baseball field. Instead, a unicorn player demands a unique entry in our trade target series, which is why we are going to look at all the complicating factors in a deadline pursuit of the phenom.
It’s important to mention at the outset that the Angels are not actively shopping Ohtani; the most we’ve heard is that they will consider offers, but a deal is unlikely. Owner Arte Moreno’s public stance is that he does not want to trade his two-way superstar. Rather, his name surfacing in rumors logically progresses from the recent behavior of teams when one of their stars approaches free agency. The common refrain says that a team is better off recouping some prospect return rather than risk a player walk for nothing.
That being said, the Angels find themselves in an unenviable position 10 days away from the trade deadline. Even with a pair of wins over the Yankees, the Angels are a .500 club on the fringes of the postseason bubble (FanGraphs had their playoff chances at 7.9 percent entering play Tuesday), their 48-48 record nine games back of the AL West-leading Rangers and and 4.5 games back of the Astros for the final Wild Card.
If fortunes don’t improve by the deadline, do they punt on the final two months and try to maximize their return on Ohtani now? That certainly does not buy any goodwill from a fanbase already perturbed by Moreno’s overall handling of a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2014 (especially if they are still within touching distance of the Wild Card at the end of July).
However, that risks the absolute worst-case scenario — the one in which they don’t trade Ohtani, Mike Trout is slow to recovery from hamate surgery, and the team still misses the playoffs, losing Ohtani in free agency for nothing beyond a compensatory draft pick. Maybe the Halos will get extra revenue from a potential Ohtani run to the AL home run record that Aaron Judge set last year, but is that enough?
Then there’s the matter of Moreno’s constant waffling over selling the team. Last August, he announced his official intent to explore a sale, only to abruptly pull them off the market in January, citing “unfinished business.” At the current rate, that business is going to remain unfinished with Trout injured and Ohtani a free agent by the fall. Now Ohtani’s name is driving the rumor mill while even Trout’s name has surfaced and one has to wonder whether this represents machinations toward another exploration of a sale in the near future. Perhaps Moreno feels that a restocked farm system from a blockbuster trade this summer and a payroll unburdened of Trout’s record contract would be appealing to prospective buyers.
Finding a precedent for the type of trade return Ohtani could command is no easy task. The closest example we have is likely the 2022 deadline blockbuster for Juan Soto. The Padres sent four of their top-ten prospects (CJ Abrams, MacKenzie Gore, Robert Hassell III, and James Wood) alongside Jarlin Susana and Luke Voit to the Nationals for the All-Star slugging outfielder. Abrams and Gore have since graduated to the majors while Hassell, Wood, and Susana now comprise three of Washington’s top-six prospects.
It’s far from a perfect comp. Soto came with two-and-a-half years of team control while Ohtani is a rental, set to become a free agent after this season. On the other hand, while it’s true Soto has returned to form as one of the best pure hitters in the sport, it’s still a far cry from the unrivaled value Ohtani offers his club. Based on reporting, however, the Angels may be eyeing a Soto-esque return of a team’s “top four prospects,” though it’s worth mentioning that ask is from a year ago and may have since come down. On the other hand, competition from other teams, uncertainty over buyers and sellers and the resulting dearth of starting pitchers available could conspire to drive the Angels’ asking price into even more stratospheric territories.
Is that a package the Yankees are willing to part ways with (or even have in their system) for a little more than two months of Ohtani? Any team would be wary of selling the farm without some sort of guarantee that they could negotiate towards an extension post-trade like the Mets did after acquiring Francisco Lindor. We should note that Ohtani hasn’t been nearly as vocal as someone like Mookie Betts, who appeared to be heading toward free agency prior to his trade to the Dodgers. For what it’s worth, Betts did not in fact reach free agency, instead signing a 12-year, $365 million extension five months after the trade. Still, it’s hard to imagine Ohtani not testing the market when he’s on track for the biggest payday in MLB history.
And looking specifically at the player, Ohtani’s an imperfect fit for the Yankees’ roster machinations relative to other possible landing spots. While he certainly would boost their ailing rotation, he conflicts with the Yankees’ modus operandi of utilizing the DH slot to rest players rather than as a cornerstone of lineup production. That’s not to say the Yankees wouldn’t do everything possible to squeeze his bat into their impotent lineup as often as possible—the front office has loved him for years—but the potential of a DH logjam remains.
It’s also worth asking whether Ohtani would even want to play for the Yankees. Over the last year, whenever he’s been asked about the possibility of a trade, his looming free agency, and his overall goals as a player, the answer has remained consistent: he wants to win. Based purely on that sentiment, the Yankees are likely a ways down on his list of enticing destinations. Last-place teams aren’t generally must-see attractions.
At the end of the day, Occam’s razor tells us that the simplest outcome is the likeliest to happen. In Ohtani’s case, this means the Angels retain him at the deadline, whether failing to receive a trade offer to their liking or remaining determined to stay in the playoff hunt in likely the final season of Trout and Ohtani in Anaheim. The Yankees may have claimed front-row seats to Ohtani’s feats on a baseball field over the last three days, but that just might be the closest they get to the supernaturally gifted player this season.