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A few reasons for Shohei Ohtani optimism

It could happen.

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Shohei Ohtani running the bases. Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Allow me to be the 109,415th person to tell you that Shohei Ohtani is a unicorn, and that his current free agency is unlike anything we’ve ever seen. It’s cliché to say it. It’s repetitive to say it.

But it’s not overplayed, because it simply cannot be said enough. Shohei Ohtani is a unicorn. And Shohei Ohtani’s current free agency is unlike anything we’ve ever seen.

You could make the case that no player as good as Ohtani has ever hit free agency. You could make the case that no player as popular as Ohtani has ever hit free agency. You could make the case that no player as unique as Ohtani has ever hit free agency.

All of that is plenty compelling as is, but it’s made even more compelling by the fact that no one knows what Ohtani wants. The de facto equation of Most Money x Most Years = Signed Contract is out the window. American players usually chase the money, but there’s a long history of international signees taking other factors into consideration. The San Francisco Giants have first-hand experience with this: last offseason they were denied the chance to make a final offer to Kodai Senga, who wanted to join the New York Mets not because of how good they were, but because of how good his fellow starting pitchers would be. The offseason before, Seiya Suzuki reportedly chose the Cubs in part because he and his wife felt the cleanliness of Chicago was more reminiscent of their hometown of Tokyo than San Francisco was.

Ohtani is certainly no exception. When he came to the Majors prior to the 2018 season, he bucked the trend of waiting until the age of 25, when he could sign a free agent MLB contract. Instead, he turned down massive amounts of money to stay in Japan, and entered the Majors under the league’s archaic rookie rules, making about $1.5 million total over his first three seasons. With teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers — fresh off a 104-win season and a World Series appearance — chasing him, Ohtani opted to sign with the 80-win Los Angeles Angels.

Now he’s entering fiscally limitless free agency for the first time, and this time he’s doing it not as a question mark, but as a series of underlined, italicized, and bolded exclamation points. He’ll cruise past the largest contract in American sports history, unless he blows past it, unless he opts for the future freedom of a short-term deal.

And nobody knows what he wants.

The assumption is that Ohtani wants to go to a winner, after spending six years on an Angels team that didn’t make the playoffs or have a single winning season in his tenure, despite employing the two greatest players of this generation. The assumption is that he’ll sign with one of the teams that offers him in excess of half a billi. The assumption is this, the assumption is that, ask your barber, your sister, the checker at Trader Joe’s; everyone’s got a take.

And they’re all assumptions.

Outside of Ohtani himself and perhaps a very tight inner circle, nobody knows what the two-way superstar wants. And while you can technically say that about any free agent (save for Zack Greinke, who was very open about the fact that he would sign free agent deals with whatever team offered him the most money, bless his heart), it feels different with Ohtani. It doesn’t feel like we have even the slightest sense as to what he actually wants, which makes this all very exciting.

That’s a good thing for the Giants, who would be out of the running before it started if the assumptions were accurate. San Francisco is coming off a losing season, and plays in the same division as the behemoth Dodgers, who have emerged as the popular pick to win the Ohtani sweepstakes. Ohtani will make too much money for a Godfather offer from the Giants to move the needle enough. They need something more than that to tip the scales in their favor. They need Ohtani to want certain things outside of the standard free agency fare that the Giants can offer; or, just as importantly, to not want things that the Giants’ competitors are saddled with.

Thankfully, there’s a lot of opportunity for that. The Giants have a surprising amount of things working in their favor — we just don’t know if Ohtani is seeking those things.

Here, then, are a list of reasons why Ohtani might want to sign with the Giants. Some are positives that the Giants can offer, while others are negatives that the Giants, unlike other teams, don’t offer. Some probably mean something to Ohtani, while others surely don’t.

I’m not pretending to know what Ohtani is thinking, or what he wants. But hey ... maybe some of the following things are exactly that.

A west coast preference, with limited options

When Ohtani first came to the Majors, it was reported that he preferred to play on the west coast, where he would have a shorter flight home to Japan. In fact, his seven finalists in 2018 featured five west coast teams and zero east coast teams.

It’s not clear whether that preference remains, though it seems worth betting on. And if it does remain, that benefits the Giants more than initially meets the eye. Obviously San Francisco is in that already limited pool of west coast MLB cities, but that pool has already shrunk.

There are six teams that are on the west coast. We can eliminate the Oakland A’s for obvious reasons. The Seattle Mariners, thought to be one of the favorites a few months ago, seem to have already exited the stage. One can never count the San Diego Padres out when it comes to spending exorbitant sums of money, but given that there are already reports that the Padres took out a loan to cover last year’s payroll, and are shopping their best player because they can’t afford to re-sign him, it seems unlikely that they’ll dip their toes into the most expensive player in MLB history.

The majority opinion is that Ohtani will not re-sign with the Angels given their lack of success during his tenure. I’m not fully on board with that conclusion, but if you are, and if you think Ohtani does, indeed, want to play on the west coast, you could talk yourself into this being a two-horse race between the Giants and Dodgers. Which is equal parts exciting and terrifying.

OK, maybe not equal parts.

The Giants aren’t frontrunners

This is the storyline that I’ve heard discussed maybe the least ... yet I think it’s the narrative that I feel the strongest about.

The general assumption with Ohtani is that he wants to win. The Angels have gone a measly 401-469 during his six seasons, a number that likely stings more for Ohtani given that his team shares a division with the Houston Astros (who have gone 530-340 in that time), and a freeway with the Dodgers (who have gone 558-322 in that time). You can understand the desire for a winning team, especially given how intensely competitive he is.

But how will that competitiveness play out? Even in a sport where one individual cannot make a team — or even come close to it — my wholly speculative gut feeling is that Ohtani doesn’t want to be a frontrunner. With all respect to a Bay Area sports legend, Ohtani doesn’t give me Kevin Durant vibes.

We certainly have a small piece of evidence for this, as only two of his seven finalists in 2018 had a winning record the prior year (and he didn’t sign with either of those two). I’m guessing he’ll be a little more choosy this time around, but my heart doesn’t buy the narrative that the Texas Rangers are in great shape to land him after winning the World Series.

I think the Giants did themselves no favors by falling apart down the stretch and finishing the year with a losing record. But I do think they present something appealing and romantic to Ohtani: the chance to be the difference maker. The Dodgers won a World Series without Ohtani. They’ll be one of the favorites to win a World Series in 2024 and again in 2025, with or without Ohtani.

If he believes in the team’s front office and farm system, and especially if the Giants add a high-quality free agent — Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Cody Bellinger, or Matt Chapman would be nice — the Giants could be the perfect spot. With Ohtani they would be heavy favorites to make the postseason, have a chance to contend for the division and titles, and he would always be viewed as the needle-moving difference-maker.

He’s the greatest player of this generation, and possibly ever. I’m not convinced that he wants to slide into a situation where greatness has already been established.

The Giants have no history of star Japanese players

When Ohtani first came to the states, there was a report that he preferred to sign with a team that didn’t already have a high-profile Japanese player on their roster or in their past. The implication was clear: Ohtani wanted to create his own story, build his own fanbase, and not be in anyone’s shadow.

It’s not particularly clear how strong that desire was the first time around, and it’s even murkier as to how strong it is now. When he signed with the Angels, Ohtani was an exciting but entirely-unknown player trying to make a name for himself. Now he’s done what was truly unthinkable six years ago: surpassed Ichiro Suzuki in not only ability, but popularity.

It’s hard to imagine him feeling as though he’s in anyone’s shadow now.

Still, he could have that desire anyway. Perhaps even to avoid putting other people in his shadow.

For all their great traits and accomplishments, the Giants have no Japanese stars of note who have passed through their halls. But they do have ...

A great history

Ohtani is not just the best baseball player in the world; he’s in the running for the player who loves baseball the most. He’s not playing the sport for money, and he didn’t insist on being a two-way player so he could try to achieve the borderline unachievable. He does those things because the dude absolutely loves baseball.

And he clearly loves baseball in the sense of respecting and adoring the history and tradition. When he struck out Trout to win the WBC in a historic moment, there was a clear sense that he was basking less in the glory of victory, and more in the glory of what it meant to forever etch his name into that history book.

The Giants are one of the most historic and iconic franchises, not just in Major League Baseball, but in sports. And the players that have come through their halls and donned their timeless black and orange jerseys need only one name: Mays, McCovey, Marichal, Bonds, Cepeda, Posey.

Ohtani undoubtedly knows that history, and he surely is aware of how much the Giants embrace it. There are signs of their past stars all over the ballpark, from plaques, to seat sections, to statues, to their physical presence. They show up at award ceremonies and games and championship parades and broadcasts. Decades after retiring, they’re still synonymous with the team, and steeped in the organization and ballpark.

What an opportunity to join that history, at the very top.

A chance to be The Man

I don’t think that Ohtani is a particularly egotistical player; in fact, he seems far more humble than the average star athlete. But every athlete relishes the chance to be not just a star, but the star.

In a way, he never got the chance to fully be that with the Angels. He surpassed Trout in value and stature somewhere along the way, but by the time Ohtani signed in Anaheim, his new teammate had already earned the moniker of “possibly the best ever.” Ohtani is a global superstar, but Angels fans probably still hold Trout closer to their hearts.

I keep coming back to this when the Dodgers are mentioned as favorites to sign him. Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman are not homegrown stars, the way Trout is, but they’re established fan favorites who have combined for 10 top-10 MVP finishes, including a trophy each.

Is Ohtani a better player than those two, who finished second and third, respectively, in NL MVP voting this year? Yes. But is he in a clear-cut tier above them? I don’t think so, and that’s unquestionably true while he’s operating as a one-way player.

There’s no shortage of spotlights in Los Angeles. But while Ohtani may eclipse Betts and Freeman in WAR, I’m not entirely sure he’ll surpass them in local popularity. For the first few months, absolutely, but is he getting a bigger applause when announced in August? Is he getting the credit for bringing the organization a championship when Betts has already done that, and Freeman has done so with another team?

And is that important?

The Bob Melvin and Ichiro Suzuki factor

It’s an impossible task trying to surmise just how much a coaching staff matters in a free agency decision. But it’s not nothing that Bob Melvin managed Ichiro when leading the Mariners. The two were only paired together for two seasons, but that was enough for them to remain friends now, nearly two decades later.

Ohtani’s admiration for Ichiro is well known. Whether or not he’ll consult his idol when making this decision, however, is entirely unknown.

A unique pitching staff

Giants fans have been none too pleased with San Francisco’s approach to their rotations the last few years, and understandably so. But it may help them with Ohtani.

Ohtani has made it clear that he is unwilling to give up pitching, even as he recovers from a second Tommy John surgery. No team is foolish enough to try and talk him out of that in free agency discussions, but some teams may adjust their price tag by viewing him solely as a bat; I don’t expect the Giants to be one of these teams.

More pertinently, though, the Giants have shown an ability over the last two years to mix and match their rotation, pitching players on unconventional days of rest, and in non-traditional roles. Ohtani has always been set on pitching every sixth day, rather than every fifth game, and while some organizations will struggle to make that work, the Giants will view it as child’s play. When he returns to the mound in 2025, it may have to come in a hybrid role ... perhaps only making 15 or so starts, perhaps making short starts, perhaps having some appearances out of the bullpen or as an opener.

San Francisco knows how to work with that, and they’ll be able to present that very clearly to him in any meetings.

Alex Cobb

Wouldn’t you want to be teammates with Cobb? I sure would.

Ohtani sure would, too. They were teammates together for one year in 2021, which happened to be the year Ohtani won his first MVP, and established himself as a star pitcher. In that time, Ohtani and Cobb seem to have developed a pretty good friendship.

Playing a year or three (I’m sure the Giants will re-sign Cobb if Ohtani wants) alongside a friend probably isn’t going to be what moves the needle for a contract of Ohtani’s stature, but if I had to bet, Cobb has already texted his buddy to sing the praises of the organization.

Long-term sustainability

Fans are understandably down on the Giants after two straight years of absolute mediocrity, but it’s fairly easy to paint a picture of a team that can be sustainably good, especially with Ohtani (and hopefully another big-name free agent) in the fold.

While the Giants made a series of short-term, veteran moves last offseason, they flirted with the postseason despite those additions, rather than because of them. The team was 13 games above .500 at one point, primarily because of the core players on the team, and not the Michael Confortos and Ross Striplings of the world. They only have money tied up to one long-term contract, and that’s a bargain deal for the reigning Cy Young runner-up who just turned 27. They may be lacking in superstar prospects, but they have one of the deepest and most well-rounded farm systems.

Certainly other teams offer similar packages, but this sort of sustainability stands in stark contrast to the Angels, who dumped all of their resources into a few contracts, built a top-heavy team with zero depth, and gutted their farm system.

San Francisco needs to land an Ohtani to become perennial 90-game winners ... but they’re well suited to be exactly that, if they do land an Ohtani.

Oracle Park

In a recent mailbag, someone asked me if I thought Oracle Park’s dimensions would impact Ohtani’s batting line enough to make him uninterested in San Francisco. Perhaps I’m searching for optimism, but after digging through the Statcast numbers, I came to a conclusion.

I think Oracle Park helps Ohtani’s pitching more than it hurts Ohtani’s hitting.

He’s allowed 53 home runs in his career, and that number would be 55 if he played all his games at Dodger Stadium, or 65 at Wrigley Field. It would be just 44 at Oracle Park.

Perhaps he wants to chase 60 or 70 home runs, in which case there are far better ballparks. But he’s already a top-three hitter regardless of ballpark ... if he wants a chance to be the most dominant offensive force in the sport and win a Cy Young, you can make a very strong case that the most gorgeous park in the league is the best place to do it.

Loyalty

Similar to the frontrunner storyline, loyalty is a topic I haven’t seen discussed, but I have a gut feeling about.

We have no hard evidence for Ohtani being a uniquely loyal player, but he sure gives off that vibe. He’s passed on every chance to criticize the Angels for failing to build a good team around him. He did not ask to be traded at the deadline to a contender, even as he likely prepared to leave. He has always found a way to praise and thank the organization, the city, the ownership, and the fans. He always deflects when asked questions about the organization’s failures, or other teams.

It seems clear to me that Ohtani is truly grateful for what the Angels have done over the last six years, even if the lack of success will almost surely cause him to leave. And because of that gratitude, I have a hard time seeing him comfortable hurting the team even more than his departure already would.

In recent weeks, the Rangers and Dodgers have emerged as the most likely landing spots for Ohtani, in the eyes of analysts and writers (who, it’s worth noting, are all as in the dark as I am).

For Angels fans and employees, no team would be as painful to see Ohtani join as the Dodgers. Seeing Ohtani stay in the same city, seeing him in a different jersey plastered all over billboards as they drive to work, would be devastating. The Angels don’t have a true rival, but they have a very clear big brother, and seeing that big brother watch patiently as they failed to win with Ohtani, then scooping him up, rubbing it in their faces, and probably winning a championship or four with him, would be brutal.

The Rangers would be an easier sell, but staying within the division — with a team at the top of it — would not only result in Angels fans having to watch Ohtani in a different jersey regularly, but would directly hinder his former team’s chances of contending in the AL West.

It’s not hard to imagine Ohtani finding that meaningful. It didn’t work out with the Angels, but he seems to hold no ill will; rather, he seems to respect and be thankful for his time in Anaheim, and the people who made it special. There’s something to be said for preserving that as much as possible when politely walking out the door.

Will Ohtani sign with the Giants? Hey, probably not.

But at least now you have a few reasons to feel more optimistic over the next week or two.

You just never know.