Even after the Los Angeles Angels wasted nearly a decade's worth of Mike Trout's prime, he wasn't any less willing to sign a mega-extension when they presented him with one in March 2019.
Will Shohei Ohtani extend the same courtesy before the end of his club control in 2023?
This was a fair question coming into the 2022 season, and even more so now in the wake of what Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reported Tuesday about recent contract talks between the MVP-winning ace/slugger and the Angels.
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Think Aaron Judge’s contract situation is fascinating?<br><br>It’s child’s play, compared to what lies ahead with Shohei Ohtani.<a href="https://twitter.com/Ken_Rosenthal?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@Ken_Rosenthal</a> has the details: <a href="https://t.co/37ypf7mT9D">https://t.co/37ypf7mT9D</a> <a href="https://t.co/KLSLjukqLT">pic.twitter.com/KLSLjukqLT</a>
Per Rosenthal, the Angels had "informal discussions" with Ohtani's camp about a possible extension during the spring. They did so with an "understanding" that a deal would have to surpass Max Scherzer's record-setting average annual value of $43.3 million, and yet the talks still "never gained traction."
After blasting 46 home runs and racking up 156 strikeouts in 130.1 innings amid the best two-way season in major league history in 2021, Ohtani indicated this January that he didn't want to discuss his next contract until after his current $8.5 million pact wraps up at the end of this season. He had also previously hinted that money isn't necessarily his top priority.
"But more than that, I want to win," the 27-year-old said last September, per Sam Blum of The Athletic. "That's the biggest thing for me. So, I'll leave it at that."
The Angels haven't been so good at winning in recent years, and so it goes in 2022. Their 24-13 start has given way to a 5-21 slide, with the lowlights being a 14-game losing streak and the firing of manager Joe Maddon. Barring a turnaround under interim manager Phil Nevin, the Angels are on track to finish below .500 for the seventh time in as many years.
None of this would seem conducive to the Angels and Ohtani striking a deal any time soon. Which brings us to yet another fair question: Is there any reason to believe the Angels will defy the odds and get something done anyway?
Ohtani's Stock Is Down...Or Is It?
Maybe—and we really can't stress the word "maybe" enough—Ohtani will get so anxious about waiting to cash in on the 2023-24 market that he'll sell himself short ahead of time?
He's not the same player in 2022 that he was in 2021, and that goes for both sides of the ball. In '21, he ranked 21st in rWAR for both his hitting and his hurling. In '22, he's down to 102nd among position players and 54th among pitchers.
Ohtani, the hitter, is experiencing some regression to the mean with his power. After hitting 17 home runs through his first 61 games of 2021, he's hit "only" 13 through his first 61 contests of 2022. Specifically, he's not making hard contact against non-fastballs like he did in '21:
Ohtani, the pitcher, has already given up eight home runs in 54.1 innings after surrendering just 15 over 130.1 innings in 2021. The most gasp-worthy development has been the sudden hittability of his trademark splitter:
So, there's the case for Ohtani to recognize that he peaked in 2021. And, in turn, to take what he can get from the Angels as soon as possible.
But is this a weak case? You bet it is.
The red flags that we highlighted above are more like nit-picks, as there just aren't any truly dire warning signs to be found in Ohtani's performance either at the plate or on the mound in 2022. If anything, he's made key strides by cutting down on strikeouts as a hitter, and by both increasing his strikeouts and decreasing his walks as a pitcher.
He otherwise remains the word "power" incarnate, whether he's hitting a ball at 119.1 mph:
Or throwing one at 101 mph:
Rather than his results, Ohtani's expected metrics best capture just how little he's regressed from 2021 to 2022. Per xwOBA, for example, he's only down as a hitter from the 97th to the 90th percentile. As a pitcher, he's merely gone from the 81st to the 72nd percentile.
Granted, it remains difficult to put approximate figures on Ohtani's market value. Not just because there aren't any relevant precedents for two-way superstars, but also because the sheer unbelievability of Ohtani's present invites skepticism about his future. As Rosenthal wrote: "In some ways, the team's fear of losing [Ohtani] might be matched only by its fear of signing him to a lengthy agreement."
Even still, the notion that the Angels had about Ohtani's value this spring holds true. If he were to sign his next contract right now, it would have to be for record-setting money.
The Angels' Future Looks...Not Great
Let's wind the clock back to May 15.
At that point, the positive vibes with which the Angels began their 2022 season had become overwhelmingly positive. They were off to their best start since the Vladimir Guerrero-led Angels of 2004, and their chances of making the playoffs had skyrocketed to over 80 percent, according to FanGraphs.
That was then. In the here and now, the damage rendered by their skid is the flaming building behind Detective Frank Drebin. The Angels have gone from a first-place tie with the Houston Astros in the American League West to a third-place standing and a 9.5-game deficit. Their playoff chances are down below 25 percent. As present realities go, not great.
As for the team's future, well, same thing.
The Angels' payroll is oddly structured. According to Spotrac, both Trout ($37.1 million) and Anthony Rendon ($36.6 million) account for more than 19 percent of the club's total salaries. Serious contenders don't typically have such top-heavy payrolls. To wit, only two teams since 2011 have made it to the World Series with 19 percent of their payrolls tied up in just one player: the 2019 Washington Nationals (Scherzer) and 2020 Tampa Bay Rays (Charlie Morton).
Neither Trout nor Rendon will come off the books and free up space for an Ohtani megadeal any time soon. Both are under contract through at least 2026, and their salaries loom so large that the Angels currently have more money committed to 2025 than any other team.
Perhaps that's an omen that 2025 will be the year that they'll start having the highest payrolls in the league, but that doesn't square with owner Arte Moreno's recent spending habits. Under his watch, the Angels haven't begun a year with even a top-five payroll since 2012.
To make an extension for Ohtani work—meaning, to not only sign his checks but also build a winning team around him—the Angels might have to clear payroll space by trading either Trout or Rendon. Given how much the latter has diminished over the last two years, a trade of the former is more practical. And yet, also more unthinkable for obvious reasons.
The only other viable alternative for the Angels would be to try to counter-balance the Ohtani-Trout-Rendon trio with a spectacular core of cheap, homegrown talent. But this, also, looks like an unlikely path forward.
Budding stars Brandon Marsh and Reid Detmers will be eligible for arbitration for the first time in 2025, while Taylor Ward, Jared Walsh and Patrick Sandoval will be several years into their arbitration cycles. The Angels would only be able to pinch so many pennies on those five, and perhaps on Jo Adell as well if he ever finds his footing in the majors.
Further, what the Angels have down on the farm right now isn't especially impressive. Frankly, it's downright bad. Our most recent farm system rankings put the Angels at No. 27, with not a single Tier 1 prospect amid their top 10 talents.
None of this means the Angels can't make Ohtani a competitive offer between now and the end of 2023. But if he truly cares about winning as much as he says, he shouldn't need any kind of prescription to see that his best chance to do so on a consistent basis lies elsewhere.
Anticipating the Next Ohtani Sweepstakes
To be clear, the idea here isn't to imagine a potential trade sweepstakes for Ohtani. Perhaps there's a non-zero chance of the Angels giving him the Mookie Betts treatment ahead of his walk year in 2023, but we'll assume it's close to zero until there are reports to the contrary.
Rather, we're thinking ahead to what Ohtani's free-agent market could look like after '23.
This would technically be Ohtani's second trip out onto the open market. The first was when he came over as an amateur—and as such, had strict limitations on his earning power—from Japan in 2017, resulting in a sweepstakes that he eventually whittled down to seven finalists.
The Angels were obviously one, with the other six being deep-pocketed teams that could potentially make another run at him in Round 2 even though his asking price will be significantly higher: the San Diego Padres, Chicago Cubs, Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers, San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers.
The only one of those latter six that has changed management since the first Ohtani sweepstakes is the Giants, but not in a way that would render their leadership unfamiliar to him. Back in 2017, president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi and manager Gabe Kapler were both with the Dodgers, while general manager Scott Harris was with the Cubs.
Considering that the Giants are currently building a strong farm system and have also cleared their post-2023 books of all but one guaranteed salary, they could once again be a strong contender for Ohtani. But so could the Dodgers, who have an even better farm system and Betts and Freddie Freeman to serve as superstar partners in crime for Ohtani.
As for the rest of the league, there would be the question of whether Ohtani would be any more willing to play on the East Coast than he was in 2017:
If not the New York Yankees, could the New York Mets change Ohtani's mind? Their front office is now run by Billy Eppler, who was the boss in Anaheim when the Angels signed Ohtani in 2017. And if Ohtani becomes dead-set on beating Scherzer's AAV record, well, who better to grant that wish than the owner who made that deal happen: Steve Cohen.
Of course, it's not out of the question that the Angels would also be in the mix to re-sign Ohtani as a free agent. But he's going to have at least as many options as he did in 2017, and potentially more if he broadens his horizons.