Shohei Ohtani wasn’t the biggest domino of this baseball offseason. It was the Star Wars blockbuster, the Taylor Swift concert, the Stranger Things finale that made us forget there were dominoes in the first place.
Ohtani fueled his own hot stove. He was such a distinctive free agent, so potent on the field and significant in culture, that any team with money could have justified signing him. Need? Who thinks of need with a player like that? It’s like Jeopardy: Ohtani is the answer and you solve the question later.
In this case: Who is the new designated hitter for the Los Angeles Dodgers?
On Saturday, Ohtani signed a 10-year, $700 million contract. It is, of course, the largest contract in baseball history. There is only one Ohtani.
But can we interest you in a former MVP, a reigning Cy Young or a Japanese ace?
Ohtani was, of course, number one in The Athletic‘s great meeting of free agents, and No. 2 Aaron Nola also signed, but 22 of our top 25 free agents are still available and the trade market has barely budged. Now that Ohtani is off the market, baseball can settle into a much more typical offseason. These are 10 players who could see their markets finally take shape now that a baseball unicorn is no longer blocking the sun.
1. Yoshinobu Yamamoto
He’s now the biggest free agent in the world, and for some teams, he might have been the top target all along. Yamamoto is a 25-year-old superstar. She’s just never shown it in the big leagues. Of course, there is some risk associated, but due to his age, ability, and Japanese history, some teams (maybe even most) entered the offseason with Yamamoto as the top-rated pitcher on the market. He’s not an icon on Ohtani’s level, but for Major League teams interested in promoting his brand beyond North America, Yamamoto has some of the same international appeal. And, like Ohtani, only the deepest pockets will have a chance. Teams on the periphery of the Ohtani chase, such as the Mets, Yankees and Red Sox, have apparently been tough behind Yamamoto all along, and could now face redoubled competition from the teams that were finalists for Ohtani.
2. Cody Bellinger
Ohtani had some limitations. He’s not likely to pitch next season due to elbow surgery, so he’s pretty limited to designated hitter in the short term. The best free agent position player has always been Bellinger, who can play good center field, just won his second Silver Slugger and finished in the top 10 in MVP voting. He experienced a tremendous bounce-back season just in time to hit the open market when he was 28 years old. For any team needing to improve their lineup without Ohtani, Bellinger is the best bet on the open market.
3. JD Martínez
Aside from Ohtani, Martinez has always been the best and most proven pure designated hitter on the free agent market. And now that teams with room to add a full-time designated hitter (Blue Jays, Cubs, Red Sox, Giants, Mets, Rangers) have missed out on Ohtani, they can move on to the rest of the market, which includes 36-year-olds. The elder Martinez is coming off a 134 OPS+ and yet another All-Star selection with the Dodgers last season. For teams that need a designated hitter who can also help out in the field, the market opens up a bit.
4. The other designated hitters
Modern roster construction values versatility, and while every team now has a designated hitter, very few employ a designated hitter who can only do that. So for those teams looking for a bat, but want a designated hitter who can do a little more, it’s time to look at the rest of Ohtani’s alternatives.
• Rhys Hoskins— For those teams that are betting on the advantage after the injury and also have some playing time available at first base.
• Mitch Garver— For those teams that could use help at catcher and like a guy who just won a World Series.
• Jorge Soler— For teams interested in 30-home run power and the ability to play at least occasionally in the corner outfield. See also: Teoscar Hernández.
• Justin Turner— For teams that need an occasional corner infielder but mostly want a designated hitter who, at age 39, can still hit and transform a clubhouse.
• Brandon Belt — For teams that specifically need a left-handed hitter (like Ohtani), Belt is a soon-to-be 36-year-old player who had an .890 OPS against righties last season.
5. Blake Snell
There isn’t a flashier offseason addition than Ohtani, and for teams that appear to be (or should be) in the market for star power (we’re looking at the Giants, Red Sox, Cardinals, Cubs and Yankees), the current NL Cy Young would certainly move the needle. Snell is an unusual pitching superstar because he won a Cy Young twice, but those are the only seasons in which he pitched as many as 130 innings in the major leagues. And even in those years he threw only 180 and 180 2/3. He’s not exactly a workhorse, but when he’s healthy, he’s 31 years old and has a career ERA of 3.20 and enough strikeouts to offset his high walk totals. Snell is one of the few proven free agent stars still available.
6-7. Shota Imanaga, Jung Hoo Lee
On some level, it’s absurd – even ignorant – to suggest that being from a similar part of the world makes players like Imanaga (a Japanese pitcher) and Lee (a Korean outfielder) reasonable alternatives to Ohtani. But the fact is that some teams scout Japan and Korea more aggressively than others. Some teams feel more comfortable projecting the jump from the NPB or KBO to the Major Leagues. And some teams are better positioned to take advantage of that international connection financially (think the Mariners’ history with Japanese players, or the Yankees’ international brand, or the Red Sox’s combination of both). It’s not hard to imagine a team that became obsessed with Ohtani a decade ago becoming more recently intrigued by Imanaga or Lee.
8. Matt Chapman
Because Ohtani is a unique player, it is almost impossible to turn to someone like him. The teams that lost might have to go in a radically different direction. Not every team, for example, would have a vacant third baseman for Chapman, but some will, and that’s what’s interesting about the impact of Ohtani finally coming off the board. As the teams that remained committed now look for alternatives, we could see them scatter in a dozen different directions. Some could try to strengthen their pitching, others could try to add offense through the outfield and some could easily pursue the most impactful free agent infielder on the market. Ohtani and Chapman are radically different, but for some teams, Chapman might be the most logical backup plan. For the Blue Jays in particular, bringing back Chapman could be the next logical step after coming up short on Ohtani and seeing third base option Jeimer Candelario head to Cincinnati.
Once again, Ohtani is a unique player and teams are weighing in on his free agency from a variety of angles. Some specifically needed a hitter. Some liked the idea of putting him in the rotation next year. Some just wanted to get better and chase a championship. As Ohtani’s pursuers change course and begin looking for other avenues to improve, the trade market could gain momentum. The biggest trade chip (Soto) has already moved on, but there are still some notable pitchers believed to be available, and some less-touted hitters: Jonathan India, perhaps? – could end up being appropriate if an Ohtani suitor decides to splurge elsewhere and get a minor upgrade at DH.
(Bellinger top photo: AP Photo/Matt York)