Shohei Ohtani's free agency takes center stage at MLB's GM meetings

PHOENIX − The confetti shot into the air at Chase Field has been swept up. The hundreds of champagne bottles sprayed throughout the visiting clubhouse has finally dried. The  powerful cigar aroma has cleared the air.

The World Series is over, and just up the street from Chase Field where the Texas Rangers celebrated deep into the night, is where teams will gather to start building a contender for the next Fall Classic.

Scottsdale, Arizona, is where the annual Major League Baseball General Manager Meetings are taking place beginning Tuesday at the Omni Hotel, where all 30 GMs, front office executives and agents will be gathering for the next three days.

The most sought-after person at the meetings will be Nez Balelo, the agent for Shohei Ohtani, who will be seeking the largest contract in baseball history, with more than a dozen teams expected to show interest – willing to fork out in excess of $400 million, maybe $500 million.

Shohei Ohtani heads the list of available free agents this winter.
Shohei Ohtani heads the list of available free agents this winter.

Scott Boras, who represents six of the top 10 free agents, including soon-to-be two-time Cy Young winner Blake Snell and former MVP Cody Bellinger, will be in high demand.

The most popular executive may be John Mozeliak of the St. Louis Cardinals, who has shouted to the world that he never wants to ever endure another season like they just experienced, vowing to add at least three front-line starters, whether it’s through free agency or the trade market.

Rangers GM Chris Young will receive the most accolades after winning the first World Series title in franchise history, Mike Elias of the Baltimore Orioles should win the Executive of the Year award with their AL East title, and Mike Hazen of the Arizona Diamondbacks will be saluted for their dramatic turnaround from 110 losses two years ago to the NL pennant.

While trades and free agent signings are extremely rare at these meetings, this is where the groundwork traditionally starts, only this year feels different, GMs and executives say.

This is the first time, they can remember, where 29 of the 30 teams are actually trying to win.

The Oakland A’s still are rebuilding and planning to keep payroll as low as possible, but every other team is trying to compete in 2024.

Everyone just saw an 84-win team reach the World Series, a $60 million team win the AL East, and the three-highest spending teams sitting home for the playoffs, and figure, hey, why not us?

“I’ve never seen anything like it," one GM said. “It’s the first time we’ve had 29 teams all talking about winning. Every team you talk to wants to be aggressive.’’

This means the free-agent market will be hot and heavy, with even teams like the Tampa Bay Rays telling agents they plan to spend this winter.

FREE AGENT CLASS: Shohei Ohtani headlines 130-player MLB free agent class

Still, it’s a painfully thin free-agent class, executives caution, and the risk factor could be greater than ever.

It’s simply not a market where you can drop $500 million on two players and win a World Series in two years like the Rangers did with All-Star infielders Corey Seager and Marcus Semien.

The Rangers’ title was no fluke. You need stars to win. The Houston Astros have proven just that for the past seven years.

And this year, there’s no bigger star on the market than Ohtani, who comes along with his own risk.

Here are the headlines that will command the attention this week while roaming the grounds at the Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa:

Shohei Ohtani

Good luck to Balelo trying to walk around the Omni without being followed by a trail of camera crews and a press corps trying to get the latest update on Ohtani.

Ohtani will be the highest-paid player in history, eclipsing $400 million, but not necessarily $500 million. The trouble is that no one knows when, or if, he’ll keep pitching. He underwent elbow surgery that will sideline him at least through 2024, and although he believes he’ll be back on the mound in 2025, who knows?

He underwent Tommy John elbow surgery on Oct. 1, 2018, and was out virtually two years, pitching only 1 ⅔ innings while he continued as a DH. Now, that he’s five years older, and underwent his second elbow surgery, who knows for sure when he can return.

Still, despite the uncertainty, he’s the biggest star in the game, and teams are salivating at the chance to capitalize on the brand. Teams will generate about $20 million off Ohtani in merchandising, advertising and licensing sales, while becoming everyone’s favorite team in Japan.

The Los Angeles Dodgers are the overwhelming favorites to sign Ohtani.

The Chicago Cubs are the sleeper pick, several GMs say, particularly with $43 million coming off their books with the expiration of Jason Heyward’s contract and Marcus Stroman opting out.

The Boston Red Sox, with new GM Craig Breslow, are expected to be heavily considered.

The New York Yankees, New York Mets, Toronto Blue Jays, San Francisco Giants, Seattle Mariners, San Diego Padres and Texas Rangers will all make strong pushes.

But it’s foolish to discount the Angels.

If the Angels didn’t think they had a chance to sign Ohtani, they would have moved him at the trade deadline. Ohtani, who relishes his privacy, is quite comfortable in Anaheim. He has complete autonomy over his schedule. He loves the lifestyle Orange County has provided him.

If the Dodgers don’t sign him, don’t be surprised if he’s back in an Angels uniform.

Balelo is in no rush, so look for the Ohtani sweepstakes to be going full throttle in December.

San Diego Padres

The Padres took out a $50 million loan just to meet payroll in September, and plan to reduce their payroll by about $50 million this winter.

So that means Juan Soto, who’s expected to earn about $33 million in salary arbitration, is gone, right?

Not so fast.

The conventional thinking among GMs is that Soto will actually have more value at the trade deadline than moving him now.

Besides, GM A.J. Preller isn’t about to punt on this season. He believes they were as talented as any team in baseball. He wants to keep Soto at least for the first half to see if they recover and become the elite team he envisioned all along.

If they have to make some tough decisions, GMs say, they wouldn’t be surprised to see the Padres dangle shortstop Xander Bogaerts and outfielder Fernando Tatis Jr. in creative deals to avoid trading Soto. They would like to move Jake Cronenworth, who signed a seven-year, $80 million extension in April.

Philadelphia Phillies

This was the year the Phillies were supposed to take that next step and be the World Series champions, instead of falling in seven games to the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NLCS.

Phillies owner John Middleton, one of the most aggressive owners in the game, wants to make sure it doesn’t happen again and will hit the free agent market.

He wouldn’t mind bringing back starter Aaron Nola, but they were four years and about $100 million apart in their negotiations last winter, and it’s highly unlikely the gap will completely close.

GMs believe that the Phillies will let Nola walk, and will turn their attention to Blake Snell, who’s about to win his second Cy Young award.

This would leave Nola going to either St. Louis, Atlanta, Texas or perhaps the Los Angeles Dodgers.

New York Yankees

Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner vowed there will be changes this winter, but nothing significant has happened yet.

“Changes could mean a lot of different things,” Yankees captain Aaron Judge said. “From philosophies, players, coaches, everything. We haven’t made it to the big dance in quite a few years, so we got some work to do, even on the player side. So looking forward to hopefully getting us back to the promised land with some good moves.”

Teams don’t expect the Yankees to spend like the Yankees of old, but of course, will engage with Shohei Ohtani just in case he changes his mind and shows the slightest bit of interest.

The biggest change, rivals says, may be their willingness now to part with prospects for immediate help.

They’re expected to have serious trade talks with the Padres about Soto to see if there’s a potential fit now, or in the future.

Scott Boras

Boras has corralled the top of the free agent market once again.

You want a bat? Boras represents Cody Bellinger, Matt Chapman, J.D. Martinez, Rhys Hoskins and Korean center fielder Jung Hoo Lee.

You want an arm? Blake Snell, Jordan Montgomery, Nick Martinez, Frankie Montas and Sean Manaea are all represented by Boras too.

He plans to address the media on Wednesday where he’ll let you know that Snell’s accolades and accomplishments at the age of 30 (strikeouts, walk ratio, and Cy Youngs) are further along than Hall of Famer Randy Johnson at the same age; that Montgomery is the modern-day version of Andy Pettitte, and that Bellinger is the greatest young free agent to hit the market since Bryce Harper.

International market

A year ago, it was starter Kodai Senga and Masataka Yoshida that made the biggest splash on the international market, but this winter, Japanese starter Yoshinobu Yamamoto will make more money than both of those players combined. He’s expected to receive at least $200 million where and Snell will be the two highest-paid pitchers. Yamamoto dominated an offensive-challenged league (1.21 ERA), and was phenomenal in his last outing. He struck out 14 batters without a walk, yielding just one run in his complete-game, 5-1 victory in the Japan Series, throwing 138 pitches.

Rival executives believe he’ll wind up signing with the Mets.

Also, Korean center fielder Jung Hoo Lee, 25, is among the top position players on the market. He was the 2022 KBO League MVP, and has a slash line of .340/.407/.491 in his seven years in Korea. He’s considered the second-best center fielder on the market behind Bellinger.

Texas Rangers

Hey, free agency treated them very, very, very good in their World Series run.

So why not hit the market again?

They will make a run at Ohtani, who was on his original list of teams he was interested in signing with when he left Japan, and will be on the lookout for starting pitching.

Bringing Jordan Montgomery back makes the most sense, but certainly Nola and his durability is quite attractive to the Rangers’ rotation, with several GMs predicting Nola will end up in Texas.

The Rangers’ bullpen concerns could also suddenly disappear with the signing of free-agent closer Josh Hader.

It’s hard to find a single executive who isn’t predicting that Hader will ultimately be a Ranger.

Certainly, with the nucleus of their position players locked up in Texas for the next five years, they could have the makings of a dynasty.

St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals have traditionally stayed away from big-money expenditures since losing out to the Boston Red Sox for David Price and the Chicago Cubs for Jason Heyward.

This year is different.

They were completely embarrassed by their 71-91 season, the first time they finished last since 1990, and president Mozeliak vows that it won’t happen again.

“He is really, really motivated," one GM said, “more than at any time I’ve been around him.’’

They will be in the Nola and Yamamoto free-agent sweepstakes, and have told teams they are willing to use their outfield depth to trade for a starter.

San Francisco Giants

Please, the Giants ask, will someone take their money.

The Giants have been flatly rejected by Giancarlo Stanton, Bryce Harper and Aaron Judge the past few years, and though they had Carlos Correa for $350 million until his physical scared the living daylights out of them.

Now, loaded with cash, and badly in the need to generate fan support, they will be in on every marquee free agent.

Ohtani, of course, tops their wish list.

They’d love to have Bellinger roaming center field, maybe Lee, or even Kevin Kiermaier.

Blake Snell would certainly look good as their co-ace with Logan Webb.

The Giants will land someone, and rest assured, agents will have president Farhan Zaidi’s number on speed dial all winter.

Around the basepaths

≻ The Arizona Diamondbacks, who desperately want a third baseman, plan to pursue free agent Justin Turner, who exercised his opt out with the Boston Red Sox. He is atop their wish list.

≻ The Chicago White Sox aren’t shopping Dylan Cease, but are telling teams they will listen to offers. He could be the best pitcher available on the trade market.

≻ The Toronto Blue Jays, who badly need a left-handed bat, have strong interest in free-agent outfielder Cody Bellinger. The Blue Jays, however, still need to lock up Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, who are free agents after the 2025 season. A back-up plan would be to sign left-handed outfielder Joc Pederson.

≻ The Los Angeles Angels are giving serious consideration to former players Torii Hunter, Tim Salmon and Darin Erstad to become their next manager, and plan to interview each of them.

≻ Houston Astros GM Dana Brown is pushing for bench coach Joe Espada to be promoted as manager to replace Dusty Baker.

≻ Craig Counsell is the hottest free agent manager in years, but while the New York Mets and Cleveland Guardians are in strong pursuit, friends close to Counsell still predict he returns to Milwaukee, but receives a raise from $3.5 million to more than $5 million, making him the highest-paid manger in the game.

≻ The Chicago Cubs say they don’t have any intention to bring back starter Marcus Stroman after he declined his $21 million option in 2024.

≻ Rangers special assistant Dayton Moore engaged in talks with three teams this winter, including one as a potential president of baseball operations, but says he is staying put for at least one more year in Texas.

≻ The Diamondbacks are opening talks this week with manager Torey Lovullo on a three-year contract extension after winning the NL pennant.

≻ The White Sox desperately tried to trade shortstop Tim Anderson, but couldn’t find any takers, before declining his $14 million option. Several teams believe he’s best suited to play second base.

≻ The Minnesota Twins, who are losing free agent pitchers Sonny Gray and Kenta Maeda, are planning to use their position player depth to acquire arms in trades. They also have interest in free agent center fielder Kevin Kiermaier.

≻ The Cincinnati Reds told first baseman Joey Votto they simply could no longer guarantee him a starting job, and Votto didn’t want to return as a bench player, so declining the $20 million option was an easy call.

Free agent outfielder Tommy Pham, who struggled to get a one-year, $6 million free-agent contract a year ago with the Mets, already has several teams expressing strong interest in hopes of fortifying their clubhouse culture.

“He’s one of the better offensive players on the market," one GM said.

≻ Agent Scott Boras, after seeing the record-low TV ratings, continues to campaign for a neutral site World Series.

“It’s nuts," he said, “we’re serving steak at a fast-food restaurant."

≻ Rangers manager Bruce Bochy, who won his fourth World Series title, gave the Hall of Fame his cap.

“I know they take a lot of items from a lot of different players," Bochy said, “ I don’t know why they always take my hat.

“That seems to be the target with me I guess, cause of the size of my head.

The cap size: 8 1/8.

≻ It will be interesting to see if more teams try to copy White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf’s strategy of giving closer Liam Hendriks a $54 million contract with a fourth-year option for $15 million or a $15 million buyout paid in 10 installments. It provided the White Sox protection in case he was injured or grossly underperformed. Hendriks underwent Tommy John surgery, they declined his option, and now have to pay Hendricks just $1.5 million a year.

So Hendriks still gets his money and the White Sox don’t have a strain on their 2024 budget.

≻ The Detroit Tigers certainly should have plenty of money to spend this winter with Miguel Cabrera’s $32 million contract and Eduardo Rodriguez's $18 million contract coming off the books, but they need to find a replacement for Rodriguez.

≻ Great opening remarks by Craig Breslow at his introductory press conference as the Red Sox’s new chief baseball officer.

“I understand that some of you will see me as another Ivy League nerd with a baseball front office job,” he said. “It’s true. I am that.

“I’m also a 13-year big leaguer and a 2013 Boston Red Sox World Series champion. And I know what it takes to win here, and I’m willing to make the hard decisions necessary to deliver.”

Breslow is the third Yale graduate to run their baseball operations since Theo Epstein was promoted in 2002.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB free agency: Shohei Ohtani is top storyline at annual GM Meetings