Shohei Ohtani did not have to strike out a batter or swat a home run to record his first win for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Late Thursday night, the league’s latest superteam reportedly agreed to a 12-year, $325 million deal with Japanese ace righthander Yoshinobu Yamamoto, the second-most coveted free agent on the market, thanks in large part to the most coveted one.
It wasn’t Ohtani’s role as an enthusiastic recruiter or even because his presence increased the team’s odds of winning and therefore its attractiveness, that sealed the deal, although those elements surely helped. No, Ohtani paid for this contract just as much as owner Mark Walter did.
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When the two-way star agreed earlier this month to defer $680 million of his $700 million deal, he extended the Dodgers an interest-free loan that one agent estimated to the Los Angeles Times could provide the team with as much as $1 billion in extra cash if they invest it well. Meanwhile, the club is likely to make more than $50 million per year in Japanese endorsements. Even back when they expected to pay full price for Ohtani, they were speculating that his deal would pay for itself. In some ways, Ohtani is the most expensive athlete in the history of sports. In others, he’s a credit card.
The Yamamoto outlay—the largest, by $1 million over Yankees ace Gerrit Cole, for a pitcher in history—represents easily the biggest free-agent commitment president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman has made in his nine years helming the Dodgers. (It doesn’t seem fair to compare that time with his eight years as the Tampa Bay Rays’ GM; his high there was three years and $21 million to first baseman James Loney before the 2014 season.) Yamamoto will earn just over twice the previous winner, first baseman Freddie Freeman’s six years at $162 million, signed before the ’22 season. The only larger deal was the $365 million, 12-year extension right fielder Mookie Betts signed at the height of the pandemic.
Historically, Friedman has not played at the top of the market. He allowed himself to be outbid for Cole and for right fielder Bryce Harper, who went to the Philadelphia Phillies for $330 million and 13 years in 2019. He acquired Freeman only after Atlanta—Freeman’s preferred team—withdrew from the bidding; he signed righty Trevor Bauer for only three years and $102 million. Otherwise, he had never spent even $100 million for a free agent.
The Yamamoto deal carries risk: He stands at 5’10” and 175 pounds, he is used to pitching once a week and he has never thrown a pitch in MLB. But he is 25 years old, he just won three straight Sawamura Awards (the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young) and he was the unquestioned jewel of the free-agent pitching market. (This deal comes days after they acquired one of the jewels of the trade market, Rays righty Tyler Glasnow, and signed him to a five-year, $136.5 million extension.) And Los Angeles just won 100 games and then was swept out of the Division Series in large part because they employed one and a half legitimate starting pitchers. Ohtani, who in six years with the Los Angeles Angels never made the postseason, in part because bad contracts prevented the team from adding, said that he elected to sign such a heavily deferred deal so the Dodgers could pursue other good players. Yamamoto is surely the kind of player he had in mind.
So when the New York Mets reportedly offered Yamamoto 12 years and $325 million, the Dodgers decided to match. Yamamoto chose them. It has been the sort of December Ohtani must be happy to finance. Now they just have to have the kind of October that makes it worth it.