Known as the Unicorn, Shohei Ohtani, a two-way star who dashed even the highest of expectations before arriving in the United States, seemed (and probably still is) on track to be the biggest blockbuster in MLB history to become.
The Los Angeles Angels star, who walked away with his second American League MVP award, retired for the 23rd time of the year early Wednesday when the club announced later in the day that Ohtani had torn his cruciate ligament in the pitching drew elbows.
While Ohtani will continue to play as the Angels’ designated hitter for the remainder of the season, the injury is the second of its kind for the phenomenon as Ohtani underwent surgery from Tommy John following the 2018 season, his rookie year.
The injury is significantly changing the climate across the free agency market, and a contract is projected to break the MLB-record 12-year, $426.5 million contract the Angels left teammate Mike had given to Trout.
With 44 home runs this season and 124 long balls in the last three seasons alone, Ohtani leads the league and still provides tremendous value both on and off the field, even as a pure hitter.
Although numerous pitchers, including current Chicago Cubs starter Jameson Taillon, have come back from two surgeries at Tommy John (though it’s unclear whether Ohtani will opt for a second surgery), the injury is undoubtedly increasing concern from front offices, particularly these are considered the main contenders for the star’s services.
While the injury leaves both the Ohtani market and the overall market uncertain, perhaps the path forward for the Cubs could be clearer.
After a one-year, $17.5 million deal that transformed Cody Bellinger’s market from young former superstar to elite midfielder with elite two-position defense, the Cubs will likely have to spend big to become the club’s most valuable player retain players this season.
The Cubs should continue to pursue Shohei Ohtani regardless of his injury, with probably the worst case scenario still being the addition of what might be the best power racquet in the game.
While that pursuit should remain a priority goal for the upcoming offseason, the urgency of keeping Cody Bellinger appears to be increasing by the day as the Cubs continue to fight for a playoff spot.
Just two years after a miserable 2021 that saw Bellinger hit a measly 44 OPS+, Belli is now back as one of the game’s best hitters, with his .321 batting average in 2023 being 19 points higher than his slugging percentage of . 302 in 2021.
While he isn’t expected to spend much time at first base early in the season, Eric Hosmer’s and Trey Mancini’s troubles combined with Matt Mervis’ struggles during his time in the big leagues didn’t just force Bellinger to do so , spending time as a first baseman, but also necessitated the addition of Jeimer Candelario.
There’s no guarantee that Bellinger’s phenomenal comeback season is a sign that he’ll be that player for the next four to seven years, although one can’t discount how encouraging Bellinger’s 2023 was.
Bellinger continued to demonstrate the raw power that garnered him instant national attention as a rookie, and in 2023 he took the next step to becoming one of the game’s toughest overall outs, and in a way that hasn’t quite started yet once knocked down in a high walk rate.
One of the game’s best two-strike hitters, Bellinger has an incredible .343 batting average on a 0-2 record and totals .295/.332/.440 with two strikes this season.
Clutch stats have held up well for Belli as well, with an OPS of .879 with runners in the points position and a disheartening .962 OPS with two outs and runners in the points position.
Undeterred by big moments and already armed with post-season experience despite being just 28, the best-case scenario for signing a long-term deal with the former MVP is to sign a star in his prime, a deal that goes chronologically perhaps would go well with the seven-year, $177 million deal Dansby Swanson signed ahead of this season.
While Bellinger’s market is nowhere near a deal as big as Ohtani’s, it’s likely to be incredibly competitive, maybe even more so after Ohtani’s injury.
Although Bellinger is likely to see a handful of three- to five-year offers giving him strong annual value, offering a longer deal for Bellinger, while riskier, could make the difference in signing him this winter.
Such a deal could well surpass the franchise-record eight-year, $184 million contract Jason Heyward received ahead of the 2016 season, though spending of that magnitude will likely become more necessary to keep up with the Mets’ Padres’ deep pockets keep and dodgers to name a few.
Partnering with longtime agent Scott Boras, a $200 million deal is likely to be sought, especially when Bellinger’s resume matches comparable deals like those of Marcus Semien (seven years, $175 million) and former Cub Kris Bryant (seven years, $182 million).
While the market for using Ohtani’s services may be inherently limited to large market teams with the possible addition of the Seattle Mariners, a much larger net is likely to be cast for Bellinger’s market.
Aside from the Cubs being an obvious contender and apt for the former MVP, it’s safe to assume teams in this year’s playoffs (Boston Red Sox, San Francisco Giants, Philadelphia Phillies) and teams alike are hoping to win the next step (Detroit Tigers, St. Louis Cardinals, Washington Nationals) will be vying for Bellinger’s services.
At 69-61, a season high of eight games over .500 after Sunday’s win, the Cubs still have many areas they want to address this season break.
Retaining key attacking figures, ramping up a questionable rotation and increasing middle-inning relief will likely be on the Cubs’ agenda this season break.
While the odds for the Cubs’ acquisition of Ohtani aren’t entirely favorable at first, the superstar’s injury shouldn’t stop the Cubs from signing him and offering him a contract.
However, the perhaps limitless ceiling on what Ohtani could be offered is no longer there, and teams will almost certainly take a more measured approach to him in the market.
With the market uncertain for Ohtani and the Cubs potentially lowering their potential top bid for the star, prioritizing a long-term deal in Cody Bellinger could give the North Siders an experienced midfield superstar to build on for years to come.
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