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OC Register: The Audible: Shohei’s destination, Harden’s arrival and what’s with Caleb?

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Jim Alexander: Welcome to the first day of life after baseball. We have a rule in our household that there’s to be no talk of Christmas until the World Series is over – but, of course, I’m the only one who abides by the rule, because everyone else has been chattering about decorations and when family members are arriving in town and so on. Now that the Rangers have won and Corey Seager has another Series MVP trophy, I can at least answer the question, “What do you want for Christmas?” My standard answer: “Uh, I don’t know.”

But the end of the World Series carries another important milestone: First day of free agency. Which means Shohei Ohtani’s next workplace will be the main topic of baseball conversation from now until he signs with someone. The Angels still have exclusive rights to offer a contract from today through Monday, but other teams can begin testing the waters. So let the speculation begin.

And I have a weird feeling – no reason for it, just a premonition – that the team considered to be the favorite to land him won’t. The Dodgers will not meet his price. The rest of the nation looks at Dodgers payrolls and figures this is the team that will break the bank, but when’s the last time they truly did so? Freddie Freeman signed for six years and $162 million before the 2022 season, and that was partly because he was tired of waiting for the Braves to move in negotiations. The Mookie Betts contract – 12 years, $365 million – came on the eve of the 2020 pandemic season and only after he and the team had had a chance to learn about each other.

But consider the free agents of the last few seasons: The Dodgers offered Bryce Harper a short-term deal, which he spurned. They made little attempt to re-sign Manny Machado, which was expected. They let Seager walk (and what a mistake that was). They let Trea Turner walk last fall, and I’m not sure if they made any sort of play at all for Aaron Judge before he re-signed with the Yankees. This team under Andrew Friedman has a track record of kicking the tires but blanching when it gets to the big money offer with high profile free agents. I really don’t see them ponying up for what it would take to sign Ohtani, especially if we’re talking north of $500 million.

Hate to say this, Dodger fans, but my opinion is that there’s a better chance Ohtani winds up in Giants’ orange and black.

Mirjam Swanson: Most Dodgers fans gotta hope you’re wrong.

Because it’s gotta be the Dodgers.

The Dodgers are trying to get over the hump. Ohtani is trying to get over the hump.

The Dodgers need a star who won’t fizzle in the postseason, Ohtani needs a team that’ll get him to the postseason so he can really put on a fireworks display. This is the unique talent who’s been performing with the pressure on since he was a teen, who was the difference-maker in the World Baseball Classic. He’s the dependable star who won’t wilt or spend time thinking about not overthinking.

And while the Giants will put in a bid, as will the Mets and the Red Sox and the Cubs – oh, and the Angels – who possibly could have enjoyed Southern California for so many years and want to leave?

Ohtani’s asking price is going to be sky high, of course, though likely not as high as it would’ve been had he not suffered a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow late last season.

And maybe splurging on Ohtani isn’t the most practical way that a team desperate to improve its pitching can spend its money – though Ohtani could be back on the mound, mowin’ them down in 2025. But as you mentioned, they haven’t really splurged lately. Instead, they’ve effectively cleared payroll space.

Because it’s gotta be Ohtani.

Jim: I’d like to think you’re right. But Friedman and Co. have squandered a lot of goodwill the past two seasons, and I suspect a good portion of the fan base is preparing for the worst – that they fail to get Ohtani and again compensate with a lot of smaller, less expensive moves. At least they don’t have Trevor Bauer’s albatross of a contract any more. That was a mistake, and it was the gift that kept on giving even after they released him in January.

The assumption is that they were making small moves and small signings last winter to clear space for a run at Ohtani. But somebody – and maybe it’s controlling partner Mark Walter – needs to let it be known loud and clear that they’re not going to be outbid. I’m just not sure anyone in the organization is willing to make that hefty a commitment.

OK, next topic. I just saw the post that you re-tweeted – re-X’d? – pleading for a Lakers-Clippers playoff series, finally. The preview Wednesday night was good stuff. But the question still comes down to what kind of impact James Harden will have on the Clips. I know you and I are on opposite sides as to whether this was a good trade or not. Now’s your chance to convince me it was.

Mirjam: OK, here’s what I got: On the court, I think it’ll be – to use Russell Westbrook’s go-to word last night – a “process.”

But I can picture it working. People forget how good the Brooklyn superteam looked until things got super-weird over there (and that was a lot of Kyrie Irving’s doing, after he opted against getting vaccinated and, thereby, playing basketball).

Here’s how The Ringer described Harden’s fit with KD and Kyrie back in 2021: “He’s flourishing as part of a superteam in Brooklyn, averaging 24.2 points per game with career highs in assists (11.7), rebounds (8.2), field-goal percentage (50.0), and 3-point percentage (40.8). He doesn’t have to carry his team on his back anymore. Harden can play within the flow of the Nets’ offense, attacking off the dribble and taking what the defense gives him. He’s one of the most skilled and intelligent players ever. There’s little opponents can do to slow down the former MVP now that he’s playing with so much talent around him.”

I do worry that the Clippers did themselves a disservice by trading away all of their long-armed defenders on the wing – they seemed to miss those guys in the second half against the Lakers. But I have a hunch Harden’s presence will keep the offense moving. We might think of him as a ball dominant dribbler, but put him out there beside Kawhi and Paul George, and he’ll free them up.

But what fascinates me most about the Clippers adding Harden is that for the first time, they’re really, truly interesting. In an L.A. soap opera kind of way.

To be really relevant, they’ll have to win, of course. But there’s winning with a pair of reticent/modest stars like Kawhi and PG, who are great players but not larger-than-life characters. And then there’s winning with Russ and Harden, figures that invite extra scrutiny and attention, that allow for the possibility of combustion, tripwires that’ll appeal to NBA fans who are addicted to the drama. It’s a mix that might actually hook L.A. fans who’ve been conditioned – by decades of the Lakers’ drama during their championship runs – to live for that stuff. For that reason, too, it could be a win for the Clips.

Jim: I’m still skeptical about how it works on the floor. And I’m not the only one. I go back to something else you re-posted, the conversation between Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, and one particular point Pierce made: Harden’s accustomed to handling the ball. So is Westbrook.

“Can James Harden play a role?” Pierce asked. “Can you say, ‘James, run, sprint to the corner, spot up?’ … Can you say, ‘cut backdoor, come off the downscreen?”

“He gonna have to,” Garnett said.

“Man, c’mon,” Pierce responded. I don’t often agree with The Truth, but he’s speakin’ it.

Garnett did make the same point you did, sort of: “It’s the Drew (League), slash NBA edition.” The Clippers will now have the attention of not only everyone in the NBA but everyone in L.A. – Clippers fans hoping this experiment is going to work, Lakers fans waiting for the whole thing to implode.

And maybe I’m just of the opinion that sometimes less is more, that too many stars and not enough complimentary players can derail a season. I lived through that first season after Wilt Chamberlain joined Jerry West and Elgin Baylor on the Lakers, 1968-69 (and if I’m dating myself, so be it). That was supposed to be the NBA’s first superteam and a guaranteed champion. As we subsequently learned, there was so much turmoil on that team – especially with a coach in Butch van Breda Kolff who absolutely could not handle those dynamics – that in retrospect it was amazing they got to a Game 7 against the Celtics in the Finals.

Sometimes chemistry experiments work. Sometimes they blow up. This will be intriguing, for sure, but I’m not optimistic Ty Lue will still be coach when all is said and done.

Mirjam: So, do you think the Rams’ season is said and done?

They’re 3-5 after Sunday’s 40-23 loss to the Dallas Cowboys – and now they don’t know when Matthew Stafford will return from the sprained ligament he sustained in the game.

They could very well be relying on Brett Rypien, who took first-team reps in practice on Wednesday, while Dresser Winn ran the scout team after he was signed to the practice squad.

Stafford has looked really good at times this year, especially when he’s been throwing to rookie sensation Puka Nacua, but the 35-year-old veteran QB likely isn’t the future.

So have they reached the point that they should – as you put it – Crumble for Caleb?

And, considering Caleb Williams is looking a little more like a mere mortal lately, is he still who teams should be crumbling for?

Yes, yes he is. I don’t think the Rams are going to give the appearance of giving up, but I do think Williams will be who he’s projected to be in the NFL – whichever team does crumble for him.

He might be going through a human funk related to the program-wide funk USC is enduring, but he remains the quick-thinking, big, big-armed, athletic prospect that has mesmerized NFL teams.

Maybe he’d do well to not pouting on the sideline when things don’t go his way, but I doubt that changes NFL teams’ perception of him.

But what say you?

Jim: From the Rams’ standpoint, I was a little surprised they didn’t make a deal for at least a more seasoned backup QB – i.e., this year’s version of Baker Mayfield – before Tuesday’s deadline, but maybe this hints at their strategy: Stay the course through the rest of this season, take their lumps and prepare to draft Stafford’s eventual replacement.

Caleb may not be the No. 1 pick, depending on how the rest of this season shakes out, but he still will be top 5 for sure. He’s sort of been dragged into this mess, this USC mixture of karma and hubris that is less about his own performance and more about the way his team is gasping for air with three really tough regular season games left.

The Trojans are 3-point underdogs at home Saturday against Washington, itself No. 5 in the first College Football Playoff rankings but coming off a couple of underwhelming victories the last two weeks. Then they play at Oregon – and the way the Ducks pounded Utah at Salt Lake City last week, that could be ugly. Then they get UCLA at the Coliseum, no gimme for sure.

Theirs is no easy task just to get to the final Pac-12 championship game Dec. 1 in Las Vegas … but then again, it could require multiple tiebreakers to determine which teams play that game.

And as for that quarterback question? Oregon’s Bo Nix and Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. would be atop lots of draft lists as well, I would think. This spring’s selection process could feature some tough choices, just like the Justin Herbert/Tua Tagovailoa dilemma in 2020.

Mirjam: Interesting moment here in Southern California, across sports – we’re at a crossroads with Ohtani, the Clippers really (finally) went all in with Harden, and USC is fighting for its season – with ramifications, perhaps, on Caleb Williams’ future … with the Rams, maybe?

As the sports world turns. Glad to be able to Audible about it all.

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