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(Orlando Ramirez/Getty Images)
(Orlando Ramirez/Getty Images)

Angel in Free Agency: The Future of Shohei Ohtani with Anaheim

When Shohei Ohtani signed with the Los Angeles Angels on December 8, 2017, they immediately were expected to strongly compete for a World Series sometime in the next six years. This was an Angels team that already had the undisputed best player in baseball, Mike Trout, who was on his way to G.O.A.T status at that point in time, and they had just added a player who was being hailed as the Japanese Babe Ruth. 

How could a team like that not win, especially when Trout has continued to play at an elite level, and Ohtani has blown all expectations out of the water? Well, due to injuries, terrible management, and poor roster construction (besides the two once-in-a-lifetime players), the best record the Angels could ever muster in the Trout-Ohtani era was an 80-82 season in Ohtani’s rookie year. It has been a complete and utter disappointment of an era for the Angels, their stars, and fans of the game. 

Fast forward to the 2023 season. On September 15, Ohtani cleared out his locker and left the Angels clubhouse, maybe the last time he will ever have step foot in the home clubhouse at Angel Stadium. Ohtani did this because he wasn’t going to play again in 2023 due to an oblique injury and just a few days later on September 19, he underwent surgery to repair his pitching elbow. With the Angels missing the playoffs once again and Ohtani being a free agent this offseason, this era is most likely already over, even with a week of the 2023 MLB season left. Where do both parties go from here, though? What do their futures look like? How will Ohtani’s injury affect his legacy and future? I’ll try to paint that picture. 

Firstly, Ohtani will still win his second MVP

It’s not up for debate who will take home this year’s American League Most Valuable Player award. While players like Corey Seager, Kyle Tucker, and others have had great seasons in their own right, Ohtani was having one of the best campaigns in recent memory prior to his injury. Ohtani hit 44 home runs and had a slash line of .304/.412/.654, good for a wRC+ of 179, and when the season ends, he could still be the AL leader in home runs (he was on pace for 59), on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. On the mound in 132 innings across 23 starts, he sported a 3.14 ERA, 1.061 WHIP, 167 strikeouts, and 145 ERA+. Ohtani was a force with the bat, and even though he had a somewhat high FIP of 4.00, he was getting it done on the mound at a high level. Overall, Ohtani’s season was worth 10.1 bWAR and 9 fWAR. The next closest AL player to Ohtani in bWAR is Marcus Semien at 7.0 and led the league in regular WAR by three whole points.

While those injuries might not affect his MVP chances, there’s still another season after this one and it’s not a certainty as to where Ohtani ends up. The question is though, how much will his value be diminished by?

How will Ohtani's injuries impact his future?

Well, his oblique injury really won’t affect anything. It’s an unfortunate injury, but there won’t be any long-term consequences from that. On the other hand, how his elbow issue will affect him isn’t so clear-cut. Ohtani already had one elbow surgery before in his career, a Tommy John ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) reconstruction at the end of the 2018 season. He didn’t pitch during the 2019 season due to his rehab but was still penciled into the Angels lineup most days as their DH. He resumed pitching in 2020 but was quickly shut down after it was revealed that he had a flexor strain in his elbow. 

Finally healthy in 2021, Ohtani has been one of the best pitchers in baseball since, until it was revealed he would require a second surgery this year. It’s common nowadays for a player to have one Tommy John surgery and return from the injury still an elite pitcher, but not as easy after a second one. However, major leaguers such as Nathan Eovaldi, Drew Rassmussen and Mike Clevinger have all had success after their second Tommy John surgery and as time passes players will be more likely to bounce back with success. 

It’s worth mentioning that although we do know Ohtani has undergone a successful elbow operation, it very well could have been a different operation than Tommy John, such as an elbow brace procedure. Either way, when Ohtani returns to the mound in 2024 or 2025, he should still be a very, very good pitcher.

What my worry is, and what many teams are certainly worried about, is if Ohtani will be able to pitch deep into his next contract. 

A third elbow procedure being needed later down the road is something that everyone hopes Ohtani will not have to deal with, but teams might wonder if that would be a likely issue. There has been discourse before about Ohtani potentially ditching pitching late in his career and becoming strictly a hitter. Teams might worry that this second elbow procedure could make that day come sooner rather than later, and if you’re going to pay two-way money, you’re going to want a two-way player. 

There will be a team that isn’t too worried about that possibility or is willing to take the risk and will hand Ohtani a gargantuan sum of money that he undoubtedly deserves. That paycheck is certainly going to make him the highest-paid player in MLB history. However, the total value very well could be less than the over $600 million that has been previously projected due to it being confirmed Ohtani will miss at least a year on the mound, with future injury concerns driving some teams out of the race and the cost of Ohtani’s services down. Even if a team isn’t worried about the possibility, they’ll surely use other teams being worried to their advantage. 

Where could Ohtani Land?

Ohtani will want to go to a winner. There has been talk about the West Coast being his preferred landing spot, but being on a team that he believes will give him the best chance to win a championship will outweigh any coastal bias. Any team that has any chance of winning will be in on Ohtani, but after spending so long with the Angels, he’s probably going to want a safer destination. The team that fits that bill the most is the Los Angeles Dodgers. They’re the favorites in the sweepstakes for a reason: they’re one of the best teams in baseball, they have tons of money, and in addition to just the West Coast perk, Ohtani will still be in Southern California. It definitely wouldn’t surprise many people if Ohtani went to the Dodgers, but they’ll have lots of competition. The Seattle Mariners are another West Coast team that is in contention with money to spend and an enticing young core, not to mention the popularity Ohtani would carry in the Pacific Northwest. A little more inland, there’s the Texas Rangers, who after spending an absurd amount of cash last season, are one of the better teams in the game. These are probably the three most likely landing spots for Ohtani, but it isn’t hard to imagine him in any of these uniforms: San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs, New York Mets, New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays, Baltimore Orioles and Arizona Diamondbacks. In short, everyone will be interested. 

Is a reunion with the Angels Possible?

Well, it’s not impossible. One would imagine Ohtani is completely done with the Angels, but there could be a scenario for his return. If Ohtani is unhappy with his offers on the market, he could return to Orange County for a bit of a prove-it deal to show how good of a player he is coming off of surgery before re-entering the market. Extremely unlikely? Yes. Possible? Yes. 

If Ohtani leaves, where do the Angels go?

Well, there are really only three options. One, don’t do anything. This is probably what will happen. The team will just coast in mediocrity for years to come, signing some players to give the fans just enough hope before disappointing them the following season. Wasting Mike Trout’s career while never improving enough in the minors or the majors to make the light at the end of the tunnel appear closer. 

Option two would be to go all the way and fully commit to going for it even after losing Ohtani. In this option, the team would trade prospects for big league-ready pieces to hopefully take advantage of Mike Trout being on the team and win a ring. This really isn’t the smart option, though. The farm system is already rather thin, hindering Anaeim’s ability to trade. Considering the way the organization is going right now, a clean start might just be best. 

The third option, the smart opinion, is the option no fan ever wants to hear: a complete rebuild. In this option, the Angels would trade Mike Trout to whichever team offers the best prospect haul in return, as well as try to get rid of other major league players that don’t fit the new timeline in return for players that do. The organizational focus would switch to player development instead of signing big names, which has backfired for the organization several teams in the past few years. This would be a tough option for the team to go through as they would have an extremely long road towards contention, but sometimes, you need to make hard decisions. 

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