You couldn’t miss it, but Shohei Ohtani was off on another one last night. It’s been his thing the past month. He drove in two, stole a base, and also struck out 10. He threw seven scoreless innings as well, and hasn’t given up an earned run in a month. In his past four starts he’s struck out 40 in 26.2 innings, while walking seven. Also over that past month he has a wOBA of .414. He is basically every Broadway show combined on a baseball field most every night.
And yet, in that time, the Angels are 11-15, they’re 16 games behind the Astros, seven games behind any of the bonus playoff spots, and would have to climb over five teams to get there. As always with the Angels, they have the two most exciting players in baseball to watch, or among them, and they can’t ever get all the mud out of the tires and are stuck where they’ve always been, dirty and inert.
Which means they’re headed for a reckoning, and one they can’t avoid, like they have with Mike Trout, thanks to his long-term deal. Ohtani has made it clear that he’d like to play some meaningful baseball before his career is up — you forget that he’s 28 already because he hasn’t been here that long. And he only has one year left on his contract with Anaheim, which means the Angels might have to consider moving him this winter if he makes it clear he’s not going to stay. Or they might have to brace themselves for him to simply walk out of the O.C. if he gives them one more shot in 2023 and it doesn’t work out.
But if you’re the Angels, or you’re any other team, how do you calculate what exactly Ohtani is worth as a free agent or in a trade? Like so many other things Ohtani does, this really hasn’t been done before.
The case that Ohtani’s agents will assuredly make, and the one that the Angels will make if it does come to them having to trade him, is that any team is essentially acquiring two players in one with Ohtani. Which is the case. You’re getting a DH and a near top of the rotation starter. Ohtani has been a much better starter this year than he was last year (2.43 FIP in 2022 vs a 3.52 in 2021), and he’s been one of the more punished hitters by the collection of wet Twisted Sister shirts they’re making the baseball out of these days. According to StatCast, Ohtani has an expected-slugging of .631 thanks to the contact and launch angle he’s getting, but he’s actually slugging .495. It helps explain why his wRC+ went from an MVP-worthy 154 last year to a simply really good 134 this year. Now maybe the baseball will change again and maybe it won’t, but thanks to Manfred’s Wonder Emporium, we’ll never know.
So it’s probably best to study Ohtani as the two players he encompasses. As a hitter, if you throw out his 2020 (and you should always throw out 2020 when evaluating a player or team), he has a career 138 wRC+ as a hitter over three and a half seasons. That puts him right at Freddie Freeman’s level, and next to Pete Alonso as well. It also slots him slightly above Mookie Betts (if you’re thinking this means all roads lead to Ohtani becoming a Dodger, well, you’re probably not wrong). Freeman just signed for an average of $27 million a year, and Betts is at $30 million a year on average. Both provide a fair amount of defensive value for those deals (again, we’re just studying Ohtani as a hitter right now), Betts more than Freeman. But purely as a hitter, Ohtani can easily claim to be worth $25 million a year and probably $30 mildo. That’s just as a hitter.
As a pitcher, Ohtani is a little tougher study. There’s just only about a season and a half to look at, as he missed a whole season as a pitcher thanks to Tommy John surgery. There’s only 49 starts over basically three seasons, and that’s going to be a big red flag for any other team when he’s pitched as two players in one. Still, Ohtani’s 2.43 FIP would be good for fourth in MLB if he had enough innings to qualify (that “if” is going to be a major player here). His 2.6 fWAR would be good for 10th. Were he to carry this out for the whole season, he would have a season as good or better than the ones Kevin Gausman or Robbie Ray had last year, which got them deals worth $22M and $23M respectively this past winter. Both are also older than Ohtani will be when he’s a free agent. Carlos Rodon, who through injury only made 24 starts last year and popped out of nowhere, which is about the same amount of starts Ohtani will end up with, got $22 million for two years as well.
So, conservatively, if you combine those two calculations, Ohtani will be seeking some $47 million to $50 million per season. And a bidding war could drive that higher. Will anyone meet that?
But there are minuses here. One, Ohtani doesn’t play the field. Most teams now like to rotate their DH spot to give their players a half day off to keep them fresh. Signing Ohtani essentially sentences the rest of your roster to be in the field full-time. It restricts your flexibility for sure.
Second, Ohtani requires you to have a six-man rotation. It’s what he’s always done, and asking him to bump up to a five-man is begging for injury problems that will keep him out of the rotation at least, and maybe out of the lineup altogether. Which means you need to find a sixth starter, and also means that if you already have a No. 1 or No. 2 starter, you’re going to be lopping off five or six starts for them per season. You’re essentially lowering their value. Maybe you think you can make that up by having them pitch more in their starts, but that also means your fifth and sixth starters are doing so as well.
Whatever MLB does with its roster restrictions for pitchers going forward, having a sixth starter is going to mean one less reliever, which means you have to have more innings from your starters, which you’re probably not going to get from Ohtani. And if you’re adding Ohtani to a staff that already has even a genuine #2, that’s some $50 million already a team is spending on just two pitchers.
So Ohtani requires different roster construction. The swallowing up of the DH position probably means having a deeper bench so that you have four outfielders and five or six infielders to get everyone the requisite rest, but also means you’re just losing guys entirely on their days off. You probably need two or three swing guys in the pen, multi-inning relievers who can boost at least the back end of the rotation. These aren’t easy things to build.
Given all that, Ohtani becomes extremely complicated to trade for rather than just sign, because you’re dropping him immediately into a team that isn’t built like for him. It’s a deal that can probably only be put together in the winter.
The deal the Dodgers put together for both Max Scherzer and Trea Turner is poignant here. The Angels would argue that any team is making the same deal for Ohtani because, again, he’s two players. That cost them four prospects, two of which were MLB-ready at the time (Josiah Gray and Keilbert Ruiz). Turner had another year left on his deal, whereas Scherzer was a straight rental, but this would seem to be the baseline for any Ohtani trade. Of course, trading Ohtani for just prospects would certainly cause an interesting look on the face of Trout.
As with everything around Ohtani, the discussion about it is as exciting as the actual thing because it’s never really been done before. Sadly for the Angels and their fans, they’re careening toward making these discussions very real.