Ohtani free agency sweepstakes off to a clandestine start at MLB's general manager meetings

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) — The race to add two-way baseball superstar Shohei Ohtani in a blockbuster free agency deal is off to a clandestine start.

“Special player, that’s all I’ll say,” said Chris Young, general manager of the World Series champion Texas Rangers.

“We’re going to be interested in looking at everything that’s available that can make us better,” New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said.

“We may ask some questions, but I can’t tell you we’re diving all in,” Houston Astros general manager Dana Brown said.

All 30 Major League Baseball general managers have gathered this week at baseball's GM meetings in Scottsdale. Privately, they're surely discussing the developing Ohtani sweepstakes, which could cost the winning team upward of $500 million. But publicly, questions about the potentially historic bidding have been met with careful statements.

Even the team that employed the Japanese sensation the past six seasons — the Los Angeles Angels — doesn't seem to have a good read on his future.

“There's going to be a lot of attention on it and I understand why,” Angels GM Perry Minasian said. “Great player. We'll see how the offseason develops. We've got our plan and we're going to try to execute that plan and see where it leads us.”

Ohtani is one of the most fascinating cases for baseball’s free agency system since it began in 1976.

He’s 29 years old and just produced one of the best two-way seasons in MLB history, batting .304 with 44 homers while also having a 10-5 record on the mound with a 3.14 ERA.

It’s unclear how much value he’ll provide as a pitcher in the coming seasons. He had Tommy John surgery in September for the second time in six years, and the list of pitchers who have successfully returned after having the procedure done twice is fairly short.

Recent World Series winner Nathan Eovaldi, Jameson Taillon and Daniel Hudson are a handful who have had success. Two-time All-Star Jason Isringhausen had the surgery three times and still came back to have a few more solid seasons. Current Dodgers star Walker Buehler — who recently had his second TJ surgery — hopes to join that group.

Even if Ohtani can’t contribute much on the mound, he’s one of the game’s elite hitters. He’s also a good enough athlete that he could be an option for first base or the outfield as he gets older.

There’s also an off-the-field component that can’t totally be quantified. Ohtani has reached a celebrity status that few other current baseball players can even imagine, and his arrival in any city would undoubtedly mean a huge boost for fan interest.

Instead of setting the free agent market this offseason, Ohtani is a market all his own.

“He brings so much to the game, so much excitement, he’s got a fan base, he’s an exciting player," said Brown, the Astros GM. “I would love to have him, but are we going to go out and pursue Ohtani? We may ask some questions, but I can’t tell you we’re diving all in.”

Then he said what pretty much every GM in Arizona was saying this week.

“We will definitely ask questions, though.”

Ohtani is the crown jewel of this year's free agent class, which appears a little short on franchise-altering players, particularly among hitters. Cody Bellinger is a former MVP who had a great bounce-back year with the Cubs. Four-time Gold Glove winner Matt Chapman is a quality third baseman. Tim Anderson is a two-time All-Star who is looking for a change of scenery.

The pitching scene is a little more robust, with veterans Aaron Nola, Sonny Gray, Jordan Montgomery and Japanese star Yoshinobu Yamamoto on the market

But none of them come close to bringing the juice — on or off the field — that Ohtani provides.

Still, a half-billion bucks? That's a lot of money.

Former Angels teammate Mike Trout has the richest contract in the sport's history at $426.5 million over 12 years, signed in 2019.

“You don't base an offseason on one single player,” Minasian said. “You have to have Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, Plan D, so on and so forth. We're going to work like we always we do. We're going to be aggressive, we're going to have a lot of conversations and see how everything goes.”

The Seattle Mariners are among a handful of teams that would seem a logical fit for Ohtani, given the upward trajectory of the franchise, the city's history with former Japanese star Ichiro Suzuki and it's relatively large Asian population.

Seattle GM Jerry Dipoto agreed that the Mariners have a lot to offer — though he wasn't specifically talking about Ohtani.

“I think that's with any free agent courtship,” Dipoto said. “It's the one time in a baseball player's life that you're recruiting like a college program. You're trying to sell your city, you're trying to sell your vision, you're trying to sell your people.”