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An Elbow Injury, Free Agency, and the Shohei Ohtani Career Crossroads

With one UCL tear, both the future of the MLB’s best player and the business of the game itself have reached critical moments. Let’s talk about what happens next.

A Wednesday in late August isn’t meant to be the most important day in the Major League Baseball season. But when Shohei Ohtani tore the UCL in his right elbow in the first game of a doubleheader for the Los Angeles Angels on Wednesday, it represented the most significant piece of news in baseball to date in 2023.

Ohtani left his start with what the team termed “arm fatigue” at the time, but the 29-year-old Japanese phenom played the second game as a hitter anyway, likely knowing he suffered a career-altering injury.

Ohtani won’t pitch the rest of the season for the Angels as he enters free agency for the first time in his career after the season. Boardroom staffers Sam Dunn, Russell Steinberg, and Shlomo Sprung break down the massive implications of the Ohtani injury from several angles.

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The massive financial implications of this Ohtani injury cannot be overstated.

The largest contract in MLB history by total value? That belongs to Angels teammate Mike Trout, whose 12-year, $426.5 million extension previously held the record for the richest in North American sports history.

The largest by average annual value? For short-term deals, Justin Verlander (two years) and Max Scherzer (three years) both make $43.33 million per season. Regarding long-term, the New York Yankees gave Aaron Judge $40 million per season for nine years.

Ohtani was considered a near-guarantee not just to surpass those records but to obliterate them. Consider that:

  • Exhaustive research and number-crunching led ESPN’s Bradford Doolittle to conclude that ShoTime was effectively worth $76 million per season over the past three years. He proposed a 12-year extension worth an incredible $789.7 million.
  • This spring, a league official and an agent both told the Los Angeles Times that Ohtani would sign a $600 million extension.
  • Spotrac estimates that the superstar is worth about $36.25 million per year as a hitter and previously about $33.33 million as a pitcher, or $69.58 million per season overall.

Now, amid such unprecedented uncertainty, MLB insiders are re-shuffling the deck:

  • Writer, media pundit, and former Nationals GM Jim Bowden now pegs Ohtani at 10 years and $400 million, the same average value as Judge’s Yankees extension, but with an extra year included.
  • According to Ken Rosenthal, a colleague of Bowden’s at The Athletic, continued MVP-level production as a hitter still justifies a $500 million price tag, even if pitching isn’t in the cards.

From one perspective, it’s incredible that a one-way Ohtani could still command a record-setting contract in free agency after such a stunner of a moment.

From another, it’s gobsmacking to the point of demoralization that one stinking elbow ligament could cost the game’s most exciting player somewhere not a single cent less than $100 million total and as much as $15-20 million per season.

Uncharted lands, these. Competing front offices will have to navigate Shohei Ohtani’s free agency — arguably the biggest and most consequential in the history of the sport — without a map.

This is a critical moment for the future of two-way players in baseball.

There’s a reason you don’t see many two-way players — period — let alone ones that even approach Ohtani’s stratosphere. It’s really freakin’ difficult. What Ohtani has been able to do over his brief MLB career so far is quite literally unprecedented in any era (looking at you, Babe Ruth). For that reason alone, how front offices view Ohtani moving forward will play a major role in what we see from two-way players in the future.

We already know Ohtani can command a monster contract as a hitter alone. But if teams believe there is even a chance he can recapture his pitching magic post-UCL injury, they’ll commit a lot more to him off potential alone. That could be enough to inspire more young players to pursue both pitching and hitting.

But how valuable will teams view them? This year was a record-breaker for two-way players in the MLB Draft, and you can point directly to Ohtani for that. Per MLB.com, eight two-way players were picked over 20 rounds in 2023, which is twice as many as in the previous four drafts combined. But how valuable will teams view them? This year was a record-breaker for two-way players in the MLB Draft, and you can point directly to Ohtani for that. Per MLB.com, eight two-way players were picked over 20 rounds in 2023, which is twice as many as in the previous four drafts combined.

There’s a very real possibility that Ohtani signs for some record-setting amount with a team willing to take a chance…and that team ends up with egg on its face as Ohtani can never recapture his old form on the mound, and maybe the injuries mount and damage his career at the plate. He’d immediately become a cautionary tale.

Remember: As wildly successful as Ohtani has been as a two-way player these last three years, it is just three years, and at 28, he only has a few years of his prime left.

Might we see successful two-way players unable to sign long-term deals in the future unless they commit to either hitting or pitching? It’s possible. Also, what impact does this injury have on Ohtani at the plate? That will dictate not only his value, but also how future two-way players are viewed down the road.

We probably didn’t appreciate Ohtani’s unprecedented brand of dominance enough.

Here’s to hoping that Ohtani can fully recover from this UCL injury, returning to the mound in his historically brilliant form. But if we’ve witnessed the end of Shohei’s time on the mound either altogether or even on a regular basis, did baseball fans take his two-way excellence for granted?

Consider all the absurd statistics Ohtani’s accrued over just the last three seasons:

  • Ohtani has two seasons with at least 40 home runs as a hitter and 150 strikeouts as a pitcher. No one else in MLB history achieved this feat even once.
  • He’s the only player in MLB history with 40 home runs and 10 pitcher wins in the same season.
  • Ohtani is the only player with three seasons where he’s had 3+ wins above replacement in both hitting and pitching.
  • Since 2021, Ohtani’s 160 OPS+ is second in baseball to Judge among players with at least 1,200 plate appearances. His 152 ERA+ is second in baseball to Max Fried among pitchers with at least 50 starts.
  • Ohtani, Trout, and Troy Glaus are the only players in Angels history with multiple 40-homer seasons.

We can go on and on about how unique Ohtani’s last three seasons have been. He’ll likely win American League MVP this year and probably would have merited three straight MVPs had Judge not broken Roger Maris’ 61-year AL single-season homer record last season.

The fact that Ohtani is this amazing a hitter at the same time he was an elite starting pitcher every sixth day is nothing short of astounding; a once-in-a-century player who could not only do both but be top-level on both offense and pitching. It’s nearly unprecedented at this level in virtually any sport. But sadly, oftentimes, we don’t know what we have or truly appreciate what we had until it’s too late.

If this is the end of the road for Ohtani as a two-way supernova, we can look back and acknowledge a three-year period of dominance unlike we’ve ever seen. It’s a period of time that could make him a Hall of Famer, even if he never throws another MLB pitch.

Ohtani turns 30 next July, and hopefully, there’s enough time in his incredible career to once again witness Shohei magically turn the unthinkable into a routine occurrence.

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