The usual howls are coming. The large-market teams end up with all the best players. A $700 million contract is outrageous. Baseball needs a salary cap.
It would be difficult for anyone to argue baseball is broken. If anything, baseball appears headed for a renaissance. And Shohei Ohtani, the sport’s biggest star and most transcendent figure, is the reason the game is creating more buzz than at any point in recent years, and maybe decades.
Fans of the losing bidders — the Cubs, Giants and most of all, the Blue Jays — will not want to hear this. Fans of teams in the game’s smallest markets will want to hear it even less. But Ohtani’s choice of the Dodgers, who play in the nation’s second-largest media market, only enhances his stature, and that of his sport.
He now owns the richest deal in sports, even if the massive deferrals reduce the present-day value of his contract. He will be playing for the game’s most successful regular-season franchise over the past decade, but one that has not won a World Series in a full season since 1988. All eyes will be on him, even those of casual fans.
How good will the Dodgers’ lineup be with Ohtani, Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman? Can Ohtani get even better as a hitter entering his age-29 season? And the big one: Will Ohtani, after undergoing his second major elbow surgery in five years, return as an effective pitcher in 2025, and stay healthy enough to remain a two-way threat for even half of this 10-year deal?
Similar questions would have applied if Ohtani had chosen the Blue Jays, but his chances of playing deep into the postseason and appearing on the sport’s biggest stages would not have been as high. True, the Jays have made the playoffs three of the past four years. But they were swept in the first round each time. Playing in the game’s most competitive division, the AL East, they were hardly assured of future success, with or without Ohtani.
The reality, too, is this: The platform for Ohtani in Toronto would have been smaller. Toronto is a wonderful international city, the largest in Canada. But because television ratings in Canada do not count in the U.S., major networks such as Fox, ESPN and TBS might have been reluctant to carry Jays games during the regular season, even with Ohtani. And while fans still could have watched Ohtani through the MLB app, the exposure just would not have been the same.
The national networks always max out anyway on the number of Dodgers and Yankees the league allows them to carry, simply because of the sizes of those markets. The number cannot increase now that Ohtani in Los Angeles and Juan Soto in New York. But the promotion, the exposure, the general feel overall, will just be bigger than it would have been in Toronto.
Another thing: Ohtani’s choice will only enhance the David and Goliath aspect of the sport, and that is not a bad outcome. Again, fans in smaller markets will not want to hear it. But few things should be more satisfying to those fans than seeing their teams knock off one of the big-money behemoths. And it happens.
The Orioles’ Opening Day payroll last season ranked 29th. They won the big, bad AL East. The Diamondbacks’ payroll ranked 21st. They made it to the World Series, upsetting two far more expensive teams, the Dodgers and Phillies, along the way.
The Dodgers once again seem poised to dominate the regular season in 2024. They will need to bolster their starting pitching, but almost certainly will, perhaps, ahem, through a trade for a small-market ace such as the Rays’ Tyler Glasnow or Brewers’ Corbin Burnes. But the Padres are cutting payroll. The Rockies are the Rockies. The Diamondbacks should be even better, but in failing to land Ohtani, the Giants just struck out on yet another big star.
The postseason, though, will be another matter, just as it often is for the Dodgers. Betts and Freeman didn’t hit against the Diamondbacks in the NLDS, and the Dodgers got swept. It’s difficult to imagine Betts, Freeman and Ohtani all flailing at once, but who can predict these things? Ohtani, remember, has yet to even play in the postseason. How he handles the pressure of October (best guess, probably well!) will be another compelling storyline.
The usual howls are coming. They came at the dawn of free agency. They came when Reggie Jackson went to the Yankees on a five-year, $3.5 million deal in 1976. When Alex Rodriguez signed with the Rangers for $252 million in 2001. When Judge returned to the Yankees last offseason for $360 million.
Ohtani almost doubled Judge’s contract.
The game isn’t about to crumble. The game is just doing fine.
— This article originally appeared in The Athletic.