Ohtani doesn’t want to talk about free agency
TEMPE, Ariz. — The usual accumulation of reporters, cameras and microphones assembled around a red Los Angeles Angels backdrop Thursday for Shohei Ohtani’s first public comments of the season. And as they tried their very best to pry even the smallest detail out of the sport’s only global icon, it became clear that the only question anyone really wanted answered was whether Ohtani will be back in front of an Angels backdrop to answer questions this time next year.
Because the most polished two-way player of the last century, the recently unfathomable combination of elite starter and top-tier power hitter, will become a free agent after this season, having long since proven wrong anyone who wondered if he would be able to do both things when he arrived in MLB. And after five years with no playoff appearances, and little hope for one in his sixth, Ohtani has plenty of reason to look elsewhere. He hasn’t exactly hidden his frustration with the Angels’ inability to surround the world’s most wellrounded player with a roster to match. But Thursday, he did his best to hide everything else.
“This is my last year and I’m aware of that,” Ohtani said through his interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara. “As of now, I’m an Angel, and that’s all I want to focus on.”
Unfortunately for Ohtani, the rest of the baseball world will have a hard time focusing on anything but what comes next. And Thursday, everyone in attendance did their best to unearth even the tiniest hint.
For example, someone asked Ohtani what he felt when he heard that enigmatic Angels owner Arte Moreno, who announced he would explore selling the team this winter, decided not to do so. Ohtani said he had no reaction, but that he talked to Moreno on Wednesday when he ran into him at camp.
“No deep conversations,” he clarified.
Asked whether he would be open to an extension with the Angels, Ohtani said he did not have much idea what his agent, Nez Balelo of CAA, was talking to the Angels about these days, if anything. Asked whether he had a sense of how much he, a once-in-a-lifetime player who adds value on the mound and in the box, might make in free agency, he said he isn’t much of an expert on the free agent market — even though papers from New York to Tokyo have been speculating about it for months. And asked whether he is determined to become a free agent, Ohtani all but poured out his soul.
“This is the last year of my contract,” he said through Mizuhara, “and if I don’t sign an extension, naturally I will become a free agent.”
On some fronts the Angels have done what they can to please Ohtani. This winter, they hired a coach he worked with at Driveline, Bill Hezel, as an assistant pitching coach. They allowed him to play in the World Baseball Classic despite the fact that he will have to fly to Japan and back in March, despite the risk of injury.
But Ohtani has never played a meaningful baseball game in September, never been on a team that even came close to making the playoffs, never finished a season with a winning record and never finished higher than third in the American League West. He told reporters in Tokyo last year that he left with “a negative impression” of the Angels season, echoing frustrations he has hinted at before. Asked to articulate them clearly, to say whether the Angels need to win to keep him, though, Ohtani would not issue the ultimatum.
“I’m really not thinking about free agency right now,” Ohtani said, insisting he wasn’t looking ahead.
To the extent that he flinched, if he betrayed anything at all, he did so when asked whether he felt the Angels were as committed to winning as he is — the kind of thing, one would think, a highly competitive superstar would want to feel in his long-term home.
“I firmly believe that they are on the same page as me, that they want to win as much as I do,” Ohtani said. “I mean, I can’t really tell you what they really are thinking, but I would like to believe that.”
For the next eight months, the Angels and everyone else will be trying to figure out what Ohtani is really thinking, reading into every smile and grimace, counting down his Angels tenure with every regular season loss. Maybe the answers will become clearer in time. Maybe Ohtani’s unwillingness to give them — to say that he wants to stay an Angel forever, that he believes they can win — is the clearest answer he gave all day.