As the offseason slowly but surely heads into spring training, baseball’s “dead zone” continues. Unlike seasons past, with the big targets all off the board, the free agency buzz is almost over. Carlos Correa’s ankle and contract drama adds an interesting twist to things, but others, pending major trades, the main player’s moves are mostly complete. For the Astros, the team bid farewell to Verlander, brought in Abreu, and retained Montero and Brantley. They still maintain the core of the team that methodically clubbed the league to 106 regular season wins and an 11-2 playoff record en route to a second World Series win in six years.
However, that doesn’t mean the Astros are necessarily going to sit back and make no other meaningful moves until the 1st pitch of the 2023 season. Think back to 2018 when the team reached a major late-season deal to make come Pittsburgh ace Garrett Cole for Joe Musgrove and a few other players. Cole didn’t immediately face free agency at the end of the 2018 season, but Pittsburgh was a team on the road to nowhere, so the thought was “why not move him to get something?”. Could another marquee player from a baseball purgatory team end up in navy and orange before the season begins?
Enter Shohei Ohtani. The Japanese Ace/DH superstar, he is expected to enter free agency at the end of the 2023 season. After a slow adjustment to the American game and recovery from Tommy John surgery in 2019, Ohtani is now considered a baseball unicorn: a leading pitcher and hitter.
Not even late did Babe Ruth of the Red Sox realize what Ohtani has inside the foul lines. Undisputed 2021 AL MVP and second 2022 MVP Othani, who is still not 29, is expected to cash in big in the free agency market. Combine the hitting prowess of Aaron Judge, who banked to the tune of 9 yrs/$360m, and the pitching magic of Justin Verlander, who went 2yrs/$86.5m, and whoever wants his Services will have to have over $400 million in escrow just to get a meeting.
With Ohtani actually wanting to experience a once-in-a-lifetime postseason in MLB, and given that the Angels haven’t even been able to sniff out a semblance of discord in his 5 years in Anaheim/Los Angeles/California / Territory of the Western Pacific Ocean, a change of scenery is likely.
The Angels may not immediately want to part ways with their star, especially as the team searches for a new owner, but they also run the risk of losing Ohtani irrevocably. The current owner has said he has no plans to trade it in, but that’s not set in stone. The team can and will inquire with Angeles property about a possible trade.
Suppose one of those teams is the Astros, and suppose the Angles pick up the phone and actually listen? What would the Astros gain from it, but what would it cost and would it be worth it?
Gain for the Astros:
- The Hades Astros range: The Astros’ top 7 are some of the toughest in baseball. Picture this (fictional): Altuve, Peña, Alvarez, Abreu, Bregman, Tucker, Brantley. Add whoever wins in last place outfielder and the receiver in 9th place and this full-strength formation should score plenty of points. Now add Othani and his .267/.352/.532 career, averaging 40 HRs/97 RBIs over the past two seasons. Name a top 8 batting order that could strike such terror in any pitching staff… no, no, you can’t. How about the Astros roster that players like Peña and Brantley could be relegated to No. 3 in the order? It also provides important insurance for Houston, as Abreu is no spring chicken, Alvarez has an injury history and Brantley has also missed a lot of time. With Othani’s bat in the lineup, it doesn’t matter who pitches for the Astros. Speaking of what…
- Replace an Ace with an Ace: Even with the loss of Verlander, the Astros still believe they have one of the deepest throwing depths in the majors. Valdez, Javier, McCullers, Garcia, Urquidy as starters, with guest appearances from players like Hunter Brown, gives Houston one of the strongest rotations at the majors. Now you add Othani, who brings a 28-14 career record and a 2.96 ERA. Replacing Verlander’s arm with Othani could be a wash, and with Othani not having to ferry a staff to Houston like he did in Anaheim and working with an organization like Houston known for improving pitching mechanics like none otherwise, one could only dream of the results he could deliver in Houston. Othani underwent surgery at Tommy John in 2018, but the current results show he has recovered well from the operation.
- More primetime appearances, more primetime money: Othani is one of the faces of MLB. A marquee player who deserves marquee attention. Throw it at a defending champion, and the number of primetime dates should grow exponentially. It might be hard to have a game on Saturday or Sunday without the Houston star dominating the graphics. Just as it would if the Astros added Judge, the team could only see its sales of jerseys and other merchandising skyrocket, adding more money to the Astros’ war chests. This means more money for big players and, in theory, a longer championship window.
- International call: The Astros, under an international roster, have supervisees. Add the Japanese star player, and suddenly Houston gains even more popularity overseas. That translates to more dollars, and perhaps, makes Houston more attractive to overseas-based players looking to make the leap from their domestic leagues to MLB.
- The thrill of victory: Since Ohtani joined the Angles, he has yet to finish the season on a team with a winning record, let alone a playoff appearance. He still plays at a stupidly high pace, but the apparent waste of individual effort can irritate a player, which will inevitably impact performance. With Houston a team fresh off a World Series win and 6 straight playoff appearances, Ohtani could find himself rejuvenated. A looser, happier Ohtani… it would be worth the price of admission.
However, for all the good, there are a few downsides that need to be considered:
- Line-up chaos: This could be one of those “good” problems to have, with so many DH/strike options. Still, throw Othani, and there’s a possibility of having too many bats and not enough balls for everyone. Also, with Ohtani as the pitching DH, it could force more outfield time for Brantley and Alvarez, which isn’t either player’s biggest strength. Especially Brantley, who at this point in his career will offer more with his bat than his glove. Could this close options for other minor players who have nothing left to prove in the lower tiers, but need critical MLB experience? That’s assuming there’s still one of those prospects left, because that leads to the next downside…
- The price to get Othani: Assuming former Texans GM Bill O’Brien isn’t hired by the Angels as GM, any GM worthy of the title will demand royal ransom for any trade involving Ohtani. The opening offer to even earn a return phone call would be the deal that sent Soto to the Padres (top 5 prospects and an established MLB veteran). For a player of Othani’s caliber, expect that to be a higher requirement.
Add to the fact that the Angels are a division rival, the price should be historically astronomical (so to speak). Houston, while noted for player development, still ranks among lower-tier farm systems, mostly due to weaker (or non-existent) draft picks in recent seasons. Any deal for Othani would have to include top players, like Hunter Brown, which would cap any major league-ready prospects for a few seasons. It’s likely the Angles would also ask for one or more of the Astros’ established big-league players (a starter and maybe an outfielder like McCormick). Would the Astros, big on internal development and preventing salaries from rising, sacrifice so much for a player?
- Get only one year for Othani: While Othani is on a one-year/$30 million extension, Othani expects to hit the market next season at a huge price tag. The overall window is likely $350-400 million, and it could increase (reports of $500 million exist). While the Astros offer a winning tradition, would Crane go against the grain to throw so much money at a single player? One only has to look back at Astros’ actions with his own free agents (Cole, Springer, Correa) to see that they aren’t naturally inclined to throw a lot of money at a single player. In the recent past, Houston has flirted with such rental moves in the recent past, primarily the run for Bryce Harper in 2018 with no certainty or chance to re-sign him in the 2018 offseason. The Astros are already World Series-gold -Bust, but a hire from Ohtani might be a bit rich for Houston’s blood.
- Is Othani ready for a ‘heel response?’: Granted, Ohtani is no stranger to boos and snaps from fellow fans. However, it might be a little shocking to go to the “dark side” in Houston. Any player will need to be ready for all the taunts and mockery over “cheating” and other, uh, “single-sex/corporate sensitive language.” Most of the Astros on the roster have long since accepted that fate. Ohtani is probably used to this, but until he’s experienced it’s hard to know how he’ll react.
Summary of the thought experiment: Adding Ohtani to the current Astros lineup makes them arguably the big-money favorite to repeat as World Series champions. A hungry force like Ohtani could eliminate all concerns about complacency or a winner’s hangover. The possibilities of what he could do on the mound and on the plate are too delicious for an Astros fan not to salivate.
HOWEVER, the price of such ambitions or dreams could be a bridge too far for the Astros. For that to happen, the Astros could expect to reduce, if not completely destroy, their near-term prospects. Additionally, unless Houston can get Othani to agree to a long-term extension on relatively team-friendly terms, or Houston is willing to go all-in on a player and exceed CBT limits, juice getting Othani might not be worth it. pressure. Never say never, but the only realistic chance of Othani wearing ‘Star H’ this season is if you make it happen by MLB The 2023 Show.