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OC Register: Will pursuit of Shohei Ohtani lead Dodgers to get ‘irrational?’

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — A younger Andrew Friedman once assessed free agency this way.

“If you’re always rational about every free agent,” the Dodgers president of baseball operations said in 2016, “you will finish third on every free agent.”

If ever there was a winter to get irrational about a free agent, it is this winter with Shohei Ohtani, the most unique player in MLB history, available on the open market.

Attendees at this week’s GM Meetings in Arizona competed to say as little as possible about the Ohtani Sweepstakes, hiding behind MLB’s prohibition against talking about specific free agents and offering repetitive “No comments” and “I don’t knows” to questions about Ohtani’s market, potential payday and landing spot.

Friedman and Seattle Mariners president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto were both asked a theoretical question about how difficult it is to set a value for a player as unique as Ohtani. Both declined to answer. When asked if that wasn’t something he would have to do in his capacity running a major-league team, Dipoto responded only, “Presumably,” the parade of non-answers continuing unabated.

MLB’s decision-makers and talent evaluators were willing to acknowledge Ohtani’s existence in only one way – he’s really good at baseball.

“He’s a special player. That’s probably the only way to describe him,” Texas Rangers executive vice president and GM Chris Young said.

“He’s just such a unique talent,” Cleveland Guardians GM Mike Chernoff said.

“He’s as fascinating a talent as we’ve all seen in our generation,” Tampa Bay Rays president of baseball operations Erik Neander said.

“He’s a very good baseball player,” Dodgers GM Brandon Gomes said.

“There are 30 teams that would love to have him,” Dipoto said.

Only one team can have him – though MLB might want to consider a rule change that would allow Ohtani to hit for one team and pitch for another (when he takes the mound again sometime in 2025).

The Dodgers are the consensus favorites to sign Ohtani, given that standing by prognosticators in the know – and not. DraftKings Sportsbook has them as prohibitive favorites, -110 with the San Francisco Giants next at +550.

“I mean, I think there are things that are put out there. Sometimes they’re true, sometimes they’re not,” Gomes said of the futures betting on Ohtani’s decision. “We don’t really know how to pick and choose and decipher those things so we just try to have a sound process and be prepared for any possible scenarios that do arise.”

The Dodgers check several boxes expected to be on Ohtani’s wish list as he chooses his next employer.

First of all, they have the financial resources to satisfy the massive asking price, expected to be north of the 12-year, $426.5 million contract extension his presumably soon-to-be former teammate Mike Trout got from the Angels in March 2019.

“I’m not sure where any of that is going to land,” Gomes said uncomfortably when asked about the challenges of mega-contracts. “If we have those conversations, we’ll go down that path. But I think we’ve shown that we’ll play in different areas and go after different players. So when it comes about and however the team shapes up, we’ll be able to handle it.”

The Dodgers have actually not been big spenders in free agency since Friedman took over. They came up short in bids for the likes of Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon and Gerrit Cole and let in-house free agents like Corey Seager, Trea Turner, Yu Darvish and Max Scherzer walk when the bidding for their services went too high.

They have spent to retain players like Mookie Betts (whose 12-year, $365 million contract came after he was acquired from Boston in a February 2020 trade). But their biggest free-agent splurge under Friedman has been Freddie Freeman, who practically fell into their laps for six years and $162 million.

“Our ownership has shown time and time again that we’re going to do things to create as good a team as possible to win this year and moving forward,” Gomes said.

The New York Mets, Yankees, Giants, Rangers, Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox, and Toronto Blue Jays all have the financial resources as well and varying levels of demonstrated willingness to spend irrationally.

“I think there are a ton of teams that will be interested in these different players and we’ll be right there with those other teams,” Gomes said, still talking in generalities.

The belief is that a primary factor in Ohtani’s ultimate choice will be the opportunity to compete for a championship. For all of their struggles in the postseason, the Dodgers privately puff out their chests, confident no team can offer Ohtani a better chance to win annually for however long his next contract runs.

But that doesn’t take into account the possibility that Ohtani might want to sign with a team that he could lift to the heights – after all, isn’t that part of what lured him to the Angels six years ago?

There is also the possibility that Ohtani might be motivated to sign somewhere where he could be ‘The’ star, not just one of the stars as he would be with the Dodgers.

The Dodgers were also considered one of the favorites to land Ohtani when he first came to MLB. The lack of a DH in the National League at that time scuttled their chances. But now they are positioned to satisfy Ohtani’s two-way brilliance – he can DH for them in 2024 while he rehabs from this year’s elbow surgery then assume a place at the front of their rotation when he’s ready to pitch again. The Dodgers have both state-of-the-art resources to support Ohtani’s rehabilitation and out-of-the-box willingness to accommodate his needs as a two-way player.

“Our goal is to put together the best team that we can,” Friedman said. “Yeah, we definitely have ‘A’ scenarios of how to best get there. It just may not line up for whatever reason, so we have to be prepared to make sure we have a strong enough team to put ourselves in position to legitimately have a real chance of playing in and winning the last game of the season.”

Reminded of his 2016 pronouncement, Friedman was asked if that might require getting irrational about a free agent.

“Defining ‘irrational’ is not necessarily an easy thing to do,” he said.

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