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    Dodgers figure to be at center of things during ‘Winter of Ohtani’
    • October 17, 2023

    Winter is coming – the winter of Ohtani.

    After months of speculation and anticipation, the Angels’ two-way star will become a free agent in a couple weeks when the World Series concludes. The most unique player in baseball history, Shohei Ohtani’s free agency will also be unique with projections of a half-billion dollar contract and equally unprecedented challenges for suitors who must weigh Ohtani’s future value based on his recovery from elbow surgery last month.

    The Dodgers have been linked with Ohtani even longer than Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce have been an item. They nearly signed Ohtani out of high school but he chose to play in Japan first, establishing he could play both as a pitcher and hitter. The Dodgers were reportedly on Ohtani’s list of finalists when he jumped to MLB in 2017 but the National League did not have the DH at the time, effectively eliminating them from contention.

    The DH is in both leagues now and the Dodgers are considered front-runners to sign Ohtani this time around. A narrative even took root last winter that the Dodgers were doing everything they could to clear their payroll for Ohtani – they made only one-year commitments to a handful of free agents – even if it meant fielding a lesser team in 2023.

    “Obviously I wouldn’t get into specific players,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said in April, getting as close to mentioning this specific player as he would. “But also – our mindset would never be, ‘Hey, let’s wait a year or two for this.’

    “That would never be our mindset.”

    So – what is their mindset now after another 100-win regular season followed by another postseason failure?

    The arbiter’s decision regarding Trevor Bauer’s appeal of his record suspension left the Dodgers saddled with $22.5 million of his 2023 salary, scuttling any chance of getting under the Competitive Balance Tax threshold this year. Other roster decisions took their 2023 payroll to approximately $265 million.

    As much as $95 million of that could be subtracted for 2024 including Bauer’s salary and 12 free agents (some of whom the Dodgers could look to re-sign). Decisions on six club options – Max Muncy, Daniel Hudson, Blake Treinen, Lance Lynn, Joe Kelly and Alex Reyes – will likely trim more from the 2024 payroll.

    Six players are under contract for next season at approximately $84 million in salary – Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman, Chris Taylor, Austin Barnes, Miguel Rojas and Tony Gonsolin (expected to spend the 2024 season recovering from Tommy John surgery). Eleven more are arbitration-eligible with some likely to get big salaries (Will Smith, Evan Phillips, Walker Buehler). Low-cost young players like Bobby Miller, James Outman and others could fill out the roster – leaving room to absorb the $50 million annual salary Ohtani could command.

    It might be the most exciting way the Dodgers could spend that money – but is it the most practical?

    Starting pitching has to be the team’s top priority this offseason – a point hammered home by their historically inept attempt to win in the postseason without it.

    As it stands heading into the offseason, the Dodgers’ 2024 rotation would feature one pitcher recovering from a second Tommy John surgery (Buehler), a career swingman (the arbitration-eligible Ryan Yarbrough) and this year’s rookie class (Bobby Miller, Emmet Sheehan, Gavin Stone and Ryan Pepiot) backed up by another wave of young talent. Clayton Kershaw’s retirement decision adds another unstable element to the mix.

    Ohtani wouldn’t help that in the short term. He won’t be a starting pitcher in 2024 and his second elbow surgery raises questions about his long-term viability as a front-line starter.

    Could Ohtani be willing to take a short-term contract this year, re-establish his two-way status and then head back into free agency later? His limited interactions with the media during his time in Anaheim have left Ohtani’s motivations a mystery. And the Dodgers have already been burned by an attempt to be creative in contract negotiations with a high-end free agent. They tried to sign Bryce Harper in March 2019 for a short-term, high-dollar contract (four years, $180 million) only to watch him sign with the Phillies for 13 years and $330 million – a contract that looks like more of a bargain with every postseason home run.

    Another Japanese star would address the Dodgers’ need.

    At 25 years old, right-hander Yoshinobu Yamamoto is expected to be posted this winter by the Orix Buffaloes and have a number of high-dollar suitors with the Dodgers prominent among them. They have thoroughly scouted Yamamoto over the past year (including his time as Ohtani’s teammate with Team Japan in the WBC) –which doesn’t make them unique.

    “It’s been a pilgrimage over there from front office people to see him,” Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi said recently on the ‘Giants Talk Podcast.’ “He’s really one of the top starting pitchers in the world. I know it sounds like an exaggeration but it’s not.”

    With the Buffaloes this year, Yamamoto went 17-6 with a 1.16 ERA, 176 strikeouts and 28 walks in 171 innings. He has thrown no-hitters each of the past two seasons in Japan.

    If the Dodgers choose to stay closer to home, Phillies right-hander Aaron Nola and Padres left-hander Blake Snell are the top starters on a free agent market depleted by Julio Urias’ off-field issues.

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    Signing Ohtani would also lock the Dodgers in at DH – not a position of need. J.D. Martinez was an All-Star at DH this season and a bargain at $10 million. The 36-year-old Martinez won’t come that cheaply again this winter but he has added value to the Dodgers. It is not a coincidence that Betts’ two best seasons (2018 and 2023) came with his close friend, hype man and swing mechanic as a teammate.

    The Dodgers could spend some of their money this offseason on Blue Jays third baseman Matt Chapman, perhaps the best position player on the free agent market (two-way DHs aside). The 30-year-old OC native’s offense has dropped significantly the past three seasons but he remains a Gold Glove-caliber third baseman – and would allow the Dodgers to move Muncy to DH (if the position is vacant) or decline his club option after a historically low batting average (.212) for a 100-RBI hitter, freeing up even more money to upgrade elsewhere.

    All roads this offseason don’t have to lead to Ohtani. One way or another, though, he will be at the center of things.

    ​ Orange County Register