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Shohei Ohtani’s future hangs over baseball’s unstoppable offseason

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The winter of Shohei Ohtani began this week. In many ways, it looked exactly like the summer of Ohtani or even the spring of Ohtani or any of the past few years since the two-way star from Japan emerged as something baseball had never seen.

Reporters at the general managers meetings asked MLB team executives about the free agent’s future, and team executives avoided answering in specifics at all costs. Off the record and out of sight of cameras, executives speculated among themselves about how much Ohtani will get and how he might get it, what the deal might look like and what, exactly, Ohtani wants. And, as always, his agents stayed quiet, unwilling to offer the kind of hints that can grow into full-blown misconceptions until there is an official truth to report.

Meanwhile, the baseball wheels kept spinning at the general managers meetings, and it turned some stomachs with it: Around 30 MLB and team executives of the few hundred gathered in Scottsdale this week fell ill with some kind of stomach ailment, though as of Wednesday, none of the cases were considered serious. And even that did not stop the offseason churn.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Los Angeles Angels announced the hiring of Ron Washington as their manager. The Angels are expected to make a huge push to retain Ohtani, even as they grapple with organizational shortcomings that have prevented them from making the postseason since 2014. In Washington, they gain a beloved baseball man who previously managed the Texas Rangers for almost seven seasons and led them to two pennants and three postseason appearances in a tenure that ended with his resignation because of personal reasons. He later established himself as a crucial part of the growth of the Atlanta Braves juggernaut, becoming the most prominent infield coach in the sport as the Braves assembled the sturdiest, steadiest infield in baseball.

“He’s everything you could want. He deserves the opportunity,” Braves General Manager Alex Anthopoulos said. “It’s a huge loss for us. I emphasize that caps, bold, italics, all of it. But I had six years with him, and I can’t imagine I’ll be around another guy like that in my entire career.”

Exactly what, if any, impact the Washington hire will have on Ohtani’s thinking remains unclear. But Ohtani’s shadow is so vast that it seemed to tinge almost everything that happened this week with that very question.

For example, Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said Wednesday that he spoke with Bryce Harper and decided the longtime outfielder will become their full-time first baseman next season. Harper moved to first after he returned from Tommy John surgery, filling the spot left by longtime Philadelphia first baseman Rhys Hoskins, who suffered a knee injury late in spring training. But now, because the Phillies have Kyle Schwarber at designated hitter and plenty of outfielders in Nick Castellanos, Brandon Marsh, Johan Rojas and others, Harper made more sense to stick at first.

“The more we talked about it internally, the more we think it’s a good situation for us and a good situation for him,” Dombrowski said, acknowledging that he called Hoskins, who is a free agent, to tell him about the decision.

For the Phillies, that is news enough. But the Ohtani tie is clear: Ohtani, who had elbow surgery two months ago, will not be able to pitch next year. He will only be able to serve as a designated hitter in 2024 for whichever team decides to sign him. If the Phillies have Harper at first and plan for Schwarber to be their full-time DH — well, they might not have enough at-bats to go around, which could make them less eager to splurge on Ohtani, which could take at least one big-market team out of the running, if that team was actually in the running at all. Opinions tend to vary on who leads that sweepstakes, which is why every move seems to connect somehow.

Case in point: Scott Boras acknowledged Wednesday that his all-star designated hitter client J.D. Martinez, who is also a free agent, will probably be tied to Ohtani’s fate somehow, too.

“I don’t expect them to be on the same team,” he said with a smile.

“In that universe, some of the teams have had conditional ‘if we don’t [sign Ohtani], if we do because it’s that position,’ ” Boras said. “Which is logical.”

As far back as last offseason, when the Dodgers signed Martinez to a one-year deal to fill their DH spot, some industry observers drew lines to a potential pursuit of Ohtani this year. By giving Martinez a one-year deal, they ensured they had room at designated hitter when Ohtani was available to fill it. Because the Dodgers seem to have the financial resources to fund the massive contract Ohtani is expected to receive, and because they have suffered multiple disappointing postseason exits in a row, many in the industry see them as the most logical fit.

“I think there’s a ton of teams that will be interested in these different players,” Dodgers General Manager Brandon Gomes said when presented with the idea that the Dodgers, for those reasons and Ohtani’s familiarity with Los Angeles, might have an advantage. “I think we will be right there with those other teams.”

On Wednesday, as for so much of this week, the past month and even the past year, the Dodgers were, indeed, right there with the other 29 teams in baseball: They were chugging through the usual baseball business with one eye focused on their franchise and the other locked firmly on Ohtani.

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