The regular baseball season in the United States is coming to an end. In addition to the usual debate of which team will clinch the World Series title in October, there's a much more appealing one: Where will Shohei Ohtani, the league phenomenon, go? The Japanese star arrived in 2018 and in six seasons with the Los Angeles Angels has become the biggest star in decades. The press has called him "the Babe Ruth of the XXI Century", but experts say that Ohtani has far surpassed the so-called Gran Bambino. The 29-year-old pitcher will become a free agent in six weeks, sparking a bidding war that promises to break records for a signing in baseball. Most surprising of all, this fight will be done for a player who is injured and has months of recovery ahead of him after tearing the ligament in his right elbow, his throwing arm.
An empty locker appears to have marked the end of Ohtani's era with the Angels. The team removed all of the star's personal belongings in the locker room on the evening of Friday, Sept. 15. The news sparked alarm in the sports world, which has been talking for months about Ohtani's future outside of a team that hasn't made the playoffs in nine years. The Angels offered an explanation the next day: the pitcher was definitely out of the season because of the injury, which had forced him to miss eleven consecutive games. Ohtani was successfully operated on September 19. For the 2024 season he will bat again. And to launch in 2025.
It is in this duality that the strength of Ohtani, originally from Oshu, lies. He will become the most sought-after during the winter because the team that signs him will essentially manage to get two players. In 2022 he became the only player in Major League Baseball (MLB) history to record more than ten wins as a pitcher and score more than 30 home runs in a season. In the same course he became the only one in modern history who has recorded a dozen wins as a pitcher and who has stolen more than ten bases as a runner. He came in second in the voting for the best player in the league, second only to Aaron Judge of the Yankees. That relieved him on the throne: in 2021 he was the MVP of the American league: he hit 46 home runs.
The injury to his elbow has derailed a season where Ohtani caressed new records. The player had hit 44 home runs, two fewer than in his historic 2021 season. He was ranked fourth among hitters in the league, which allowed him to continue the hunt for the triple crown, one of the most difficult statistics in baseball, where the same player must lead in batting average, home runs and RBIs (RBI) in either the American or National League. It's something that hasn't been achieved since 2012 and Ohtani, a pitcher, was among those who could do it.
Despite the statistics gained since his arrival in the United States, experts believe that fans may not have seen the best of Ohtani. "All professional players invest in their future, but he takes this to another level," says Trevor Ray, a baseball specialist who lives in Japan. "I'm 100% sure he'll come back stronger as a pitcher. Whenever he has faced a problem like this, he has succeeded and exceeded expectations, dispelling doubts about his ability to continue as a dual player."
The injury has somewhat deflated the value Ohtani will have in the transfer market. "That and that he will not be able to launch yet during the next course will have a cost in his next contract, I estimate that about 100 million dollars," says Shane Barclay, president of Japan Baseball, an organization focused on the sport in the Asian country. Several teams are tightening their budgets in hopes of fighting for free agency. Bookmakers favor the Los Angeles Dodgers, who will likely see this postseason last season on the mound of their star, Clayton Kershaw. The Yankees, New York Mets and San Diego Padres are also looking for the star. "Shohei has made it clear that he wants to be part of a winning organization, and the Angels are not that," Barclay argues.
Before the injury, executives at several franchises considered the price tag to be over $500 million. Others say it could reach 600 million. Only one player in MLB history has signed a contract above 400 million, Ohtani's still teammate, Mike Trout, who signed in 2019 an extension to wear the Angels jersey until 2030.
Ohtani has become a legend in his country, where he played five years for Nippon-Ham. Japan has been a baseball fan since Americans brought the sport to the island in the late nineteenth century. Some 67 Japanese have played in the major leagues, but only three have become iconic players. The first was Dodgers center Hideo Nomo (active from 1995 to 2005). The second was Ichiro Suzuki, who had an unforgettable decade as a hitter in Seattle between 2001 and 2011. The third is Ohtani, who brings together the qualities of the previous two and who has raised his image as a winner after conquering for Japan last March the title in the World Baseball Classic, considered the World Cup of baseball.
"It's Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson fused into one," Ray says. "It does things that don't seem capable for a human. But even about that he maintains a neat image, he is a committed professional, he would be president of his class, honors student and the favorite of the teacher. Which American athlete fits that description? I'm not sure," concludes the specialist.
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