Shohei Ohtani and the Dodgers made history – and left a lot of people buzzing and fussing – by agreeing to a contract that will pay the modern-day Babe Ruth $700 million over 10 seasons.
Unless you were one of the unfortunate souls who fell for the bogus Ohtani-to-Toronto rumors, this transaction should have surprised no one. The Dodgers were always the favorites to secure Ohtani, who not only likes money but also his Pacific Coast lifestyle. And the Dodgers have the resources to do whatever their ownership group wants to do – including incinerating money by signing pitcher Trevor Bauer to a three-year deal for $102 million.
The Dodgers’ decision to win the Ohtani sweepstakes doesn’t have to make sense based on another team’s standards. It doesn’t have to be popular with the 29 other MLB fan bases. The largest player contract in sports-universe history – step aside, Messi – doesn’t have to satisfy the sky-is-falling crowd that gasps and heads to the fainting couch when a massive contract is entered into record.
UPDATE: This contract is extraordinary for another reason. News from The Athletic: “In an effort to enable the Dodgers to continue spending around stars Ohtani, Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman, Ohtani agreed to defer all but $2 million of his annual salary — $68 million of his $70 million per year — until after the completion of the contract. The deferred money is to be paid out without interest from 2034 to 2043.”
No matter how they pay Ohtani, the Dodgers’ investment was sound business for the Dodgers. The colossal payout to Ohtani doesn’t mean that baseball is shattered financially. If there’s a problem in major-league ball, it’s centered around franchise owners who hoard revenue without reinvesting in their teams in a genuine effort to win. These scrooges sit back, publicly cry about the big-spender owners for show purposes – and then laugh to themselves while savoring their profits.
Access to the highest level of the revenue flow can help a team win and qualify for the postseason … but guarantees nothing beyond that.
I did a quick study Monday morning. From 2011 through 2023 – 13 seasons – these teams ranked among the annual top-three payroll listings:
Yankees, 12 times.
Dodgers, nine times.
Red Sox, seven times.
Mets, three times.
Phillies, three times.
Cubs, two times.
Giants, two times.
Padres, one time.
In all, that’s 39 top-three payroll rankings in the past 13 seasons. And of the 39 teams to invest at a top-three level in player talent in a given year, only two have won the World Series: the Red Sox in 2013, and the Dodgers in the pandemic-disrupted 2020 season. (Source: Spotrac.)
Wait a minute … didn’t the Giants win the World Series in 2010, 2012 and 2014? Yes. The 2010 title was earned before our 13-season examination. But just for the record the 2010 Giants were 11th in payroll. In 2012 and ‘14, the Giants won the World Series after being ranked seventh in payroll each time. And in their two top-three payroll seasons – 2015 and 2018 – the Giants failed to qualify for the postseason. This is sort of the point I’m trying to make here. Money matters but only if you have the brainpower and resourcefulness to maximize it.
The Yankees haven’t won a World Series since 2009. The Dodgers haven’t won the big prize in a full season since 1988. The small-market Kansas City Royals won the World Series title in 2015, which gives them more full-season championships (1) than the Dodgers (0), Yankees (0), Mets (0), Phillies (0), Padres (0), Cardinals (0) and many others over the last nine seasons. And the Cubs weren’t a top-three payroll team when they ended their 108-season drought by winning the World Series in 2016.
If having multiple superstars on your roster translates into championships, then how do you explain the futility of the Los Angeles Angels? Despite having Mike Trout and Ohtani on the same team from 2018 through 2023 the Angels ranked 21st in the majors with a .461 winning percentage, suffered six consecutive losing seasons and never competed in the postseason.
You can have two of the biggest stars in baseball and wallow as a chronic loser because of a lousy and impatient owner who wasn’t interested in building a complete team or a farm system that regularly funneled younger, cheaper talent to the big-league club. Arte Moreno was more interested in collecting expensive toys to show off. Outrageous incompetence. The Angels had Ohtani for a bargain price of $42.3 million during his first six MLB seasons – and they still couldn’t build a successful team around him. Money is important. Money isn’t everything.
Ohtani and the Dodgers did a smart thing by largely deferring a shockingly heavy percentage of his $700 million into the future to give the Dodgers payroll space to add more talent and avoid severe competitive-balance tax penalties. That’s important, because the Dodgers don’t have enough quality starting pitching to win it all with a stacked lineup that features Betts, Freeman and Ohtani. And now Los Angeles can pursue the starting pitching necessary to make the team whole. Because of Ohtani’s desire to win as much as possible — and push 97 percent of his total salary into the future — the Dodgers can aggressively pursue any starting pitcher they’d like.
Of course, the Dodgers-Ohtani deal is intriguing for another reason. The right-hander had his second career elbow surgery at the end of the 2023 season and won’t pitch in 2024. Ohtani previously had full Tommy John reconstructive surgery earlier in his career with the Angels, and went through a hybrid version of the surgery this fall.
Even if Ohtani returns to the mound in 2025, will he be as effective as before? The history for pitchers that have two Tommy John surgeries isn’t great. And Ohtani is unlikely to handle pitching and hitting roles for the duration of the contract. As Ohtani ages – he’ll be 39 by the end of the end of the deal – it will be too difficult for him to maintain an elite performance in dual roles.
As a big-league hitter, Ohtani has a batting line of .272/.361/.561 for a .922 OPS and a 145 wRC+ that puts him 45 percent above league average offensively. Last season Ohtani won his second AL MVP award and was the most dominant designated hitter in the majors, batting .292 with a .398 onbase percentage and .647 slug. That computes to a 1.045 OPS and a wRC+ that was 73% above league average offensively. And oh, yeah … he had 70 extra-base hits including 40 homers.
As a hitter only, Ohtani’s 6.6 WAR ranked fifth in the majors. He added another 2.4 WAR as a starting pitcher. If Ohtani eventually eases away from pitching, he’ll still supply premium value for his offense and his appeal. The already formidable Dodger brand will not only be strengthened in the U.S. and will establish an entire new frontier in Japan.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the Angels “netted $10 million to $20 million a year in Ohtani-related advertising, promotions and marketing revenue.” The Times quoted an unnamed high-ranking MLB exec that believes the Dodgers could double that revenue through Ohtani’s lucrative marketing potential that will grow through his partnership with the Dodgers. (Lo and behold, he’s already making an estimated $50 million a year in endorsement deals.)
And though the Dodgers are still tied into a 25-year, $8.35 billion local-TV deal signed with SportsNet LA in 2013 – an average of $334 million per season! – Ohtani’s presence ensures a prosperous future should the Dodgers have a need to reorder their method of presenting their games. With so much cord-cutting going on – even in jumbo–market Los Angeles – Ohtani offers the Dodgers a form of protection.
Just imagine what the franchise could do with Ohtani as a global streaming star. And Ohtani should be able to help the Dodgers successfully recruit talented players from Japan.
What does the Ohtani deal mean for the Cardinals?
Not much. The Cardinals will move back up in MLB’s 30-team power structure as soon as they clean up a mess of their own making. There’s still a place in baseball for organizations to win consistently by having a productive and fertile farm system while making costly but relatively efficient choices with their payroll dollars. The Cardinals were one of those franchises for the longest time under chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. but are scrambling to reorganize and revamp after several years of neglect.
The Cardinals didn’t lose 91 games last season because they ranked 15th in MLB for their 26-man payroll. They fell apart because they failed to prioritize the drafting and development and starting pitching and forget about fielding an elite defense that could save runs. Both foundations broke down in 2023.
Sure, at some point DeWitt must show a willingness to invest more finances in starting pitching to stay within range of contemporary market value. This Ohtani deal merely reinforces the obvious reality, But for now, at least president of baseball operations John Mozeliak patched a dilapidated rotation for 2024 by signing free agents Sonny Gray, Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson. The Cardinals have slipped in the payroll rankings but other factors – and many self-inflicted wounds – have jeopardized their DeWitt Era history of long-term success.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie hosts an opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. Stream it live or access the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
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All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Fielding Bible. Baseball Prospectus, Bill James Online or Sports Info Solutions unless otherwise noted.
For the last 36 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.