OF ALL HIS incredible abilities, Shohei Ohtani's capacity to shock tops the list. For the past six years, Ohtani has left us mere mortals slack-jawed as he conquered Major League Baseball, a sport that typically evolves over decades, by redefining the capabilities of a single player. In a game where players hit or pitch, he does both -- and to say it so plainly undersells his excellence in each endeavor. He is the most talented baseball player in the century-and-a-half-long history of the game.
And yet on Saturday, we found there is room for another surprise. This announcement went beyond his customary flabbergasting: Ohtani agreed with the Los Angeles Dodgers on a contract that would guarantee him $700 million for 10 years, with a significant chunk to be deferred until after the deal's conclusion.
To many, the decision seemed preordained: the best player going to the best organization. It was the fashion in which it happened -- with a number, 700 million, far exceeding the highest expectations -- that imbued it with the sort of oomph that accompanies Ohtani's longest home runs and angriest fastballs. From L.A. to Tokyo, the fanciest athlete alive, the one who elevated what's possible unlike anyone before him, secured a contract that matched his magnitude.
The agreement is the biggest ever in professional team sports, nearly twice as large as the next-best free agent deal. It left not just baseball or the sporting world but the entire universe gobsmacked. In a time when anything seems possible, Ohtani's ability to amaze is unmatched.
THE MOST CONSEQUENTIAL free agency in sports since LeBron James' Decision ended with a chaotic final 30 hours in which erroneous reports had Ohtani on the verge of an announcement, on a plane to Canada and even agreeing to sign with the Toronto Blue Jays. Consumed by the possibility of Ohtani joining their team, fans flocked to flight-tracking websites to monitor the whereabouts of a private jet going from Southern California to Toronto. When the door swung open, Robert Herjavec, the businessman and "Shark Tank" star, emerged, much to the deflation of a Blue Jays fan base frothing at the notion that Ohtani would choose Toronto.
Ohtani's announcement came via Instagram at 3:03 p.m. ET, below a slightly blurry Dodgers logo with a caption in which he first apologized for taking so long to make his choice. The decision all of baseball had been waiting for was here, as Ohtani shared he was moving up Interstate 5 from the Los Angeles Angels to the Dodgers.
This was the team always best positioned to leverage Ohtani's unparalleled marketing value, to take a superstar who made Anaheim a baseball destination and create a mutually beneficial business relationship that further enriches both. While impossible to say how much money the franchise will make with Ohtani, 29, wearing Dodger blue, it's the sort of number that left ownership pledging it would not be outbid for him in free agency. That proclamation held, and it's easy to understand why: Ohtani is baseball's lone crossover star, someone whose unique talents have transcended a sport with waning cultural resonance. He is on the level of LeBron, Messi and Mahomes, athletes for whom a mononym suffices.
Shohei became Shohei, of course, because of his accomplishments. He won his second American League MVP award unanimously this season despite missing the final month due to an elbow injury requiring reconstructive surgery that will keep him from pitching in 2024. In fewer than 500 at-bats as designated hitter, he still whacked 44 home runs and posted an OPS of 1.066. Over 23 starts, he struck out 167 in 132 innings and booked a 3.14 ERA. The previous year, his ERA was 2.33 and his OPS .875. The year before that: a .965 OPS, 3.18 ERA and one more unanimous MVP.
To suggest that sort of production will continue toward the end of the contract, when Ohtani will be 39, would be silly. But then to suggest a player can hit and pitch and do both at extraordinary levels was equally foolhardy, and here we are. The history of pitchers returning to the mound successfully after a second major elbow procedure within five years is short. But then this is Ohtani.
REGARDLESS OF HOW audacious that $700 million number might be, executives around baseball on Saturday agreed almost unanimously: The Dodgers pulled off a coup. Not just thieving Ohtani from Toronto and leaving the Blue Jays and their fans jilted brides. Not just staying within the rules to circumnavigate the competitive balance tax. The smartest team in baseball, the one with 10 division championships in 11 seasons (and 106 wins in the one season without), the organization that excels at analytics, scouting, drafting and player development, domestically and internationally, also happened to be moneyed enough to offer that kind of sum -- as much for a single season of play (without accounting for deferrals) as some teams pay their entire rosters -- and dare Ohtani to turn it down.
Besides, the eye-popping value of the contract is somewhat misleading. The Dodgers are going to pay Ohtani $700 million, but the present-day value of the contract will be markedly lower. The details matter. How much of the money is deferred ("a majority," said a source) and how long the deferrals last will give a better sense of how good of a deal this might be for the Dodgers, minutiae that will offer a better understanding when the deal is official sometime midweek. Major League Baseball discounts deferrals when calculating the amount teams are charged in the competitive balance tax accounting system, and rather than the $70 million a year a straight contract would cost, Ohtani's deal is expected to wind up somewhere in the range of $40 million to $50 million a year.
Which opens up a world of possibilities when it comes to further building a team around him. The Dodgers already have Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman, a pair of future Hall of Famers, atop their lineup. They've got Will Smith, Max Muncy and James Outman behind them. Their rotation is a mess of TBDs at the moment, but Ohtani's deal buys the Dodgers the leeway to spend plenty to fill it running a payroll that blows well beyond the first luxury tax threshold at $237 million but doesn't necessarily exceed the $293.3 million mark Los Angeles hit in 2022.
So, yes, the Dodgers certainly will be in the bidding for Japanese right-hander Yoshinobu Yamamoto, whose suitors include the New York Mets, New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, San Francisco Giants and even the Blue Jays, who would hate to be spurned twice. Adding him and Ohtani isn't out of the question. By Game 1 of the 2024 season, which sees the Dodgers take on the San Diego Padres in Seoul, South Korea, Yamamoto could be the starting pitcher, with Ohtani hitting behind Betts and Freeman. It would be must-watch TV, whether in the United States or abroad.
With Ohtani in the fold, the Dodgers' worldwide appeal only grows. When Hideo Nomo arrived in Los Angeles nearly 30 years ago, he was a phenom whose pipeline-opening performance captivated audiences and paved the way for Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, Yu Darvish and Ohtani to thrive in MLB. If the Dodgers weren't synonymous with Japanese baseball before, they'll certainly be now. And with a new generation of players primed to make the leap -- Yamamoto, brilliant 22-year-old right-hander Roki Sasaki, slugging third baseman Munetaka Murakami and so many others -- Los Angeles could cement itself as the American outpost for all the best players.
Ohtani will be at the center of it. Following a physical he is expected to pass even with his recently repaired elbow, he will be a Dodger. The rest of the sport, consequently, is on notice. This is Dodgers 2.0, bigger and better than ever, with the best player alive at the heart of it. And as spring training approaches and the Dodgers round out their roster and the full picture of this superteam's future comes into focus, we'll look back on the tortuous -- and, for Toronto, torturous -- 30 hours that delivered Shohei Ohtani to Los Angeles and remember them for their shock, sure, but for their awe too.