Welcome to Smash Or Pass, a new offseason series in which we’ll examine various free agents and trade targets to determine whether they make sense for the Red Sox. Today, we’re kicking off the whole series with the guy we’re kinda forced to start with: Shohei Ohtani.
Who is he and where does he come from?
He’s Shohei Ohtani, and while he allegedly comes from Oshu, Japan by way of Anaheim, it seems more likely that he comes from an advanced alien civilization that has engineered mastery over time and space.
What position does he play?
He’s a starting pitcher. And a full-time DH. And sometimes a right fielder.
Is he any good?
This section will usually be filled with stats and analysis about things like platoon splits, park effects, and pitch shapes. But we’re actually going to skip all that in this case.
Remember when Homer Simpson asked Daryl Strawberry if he was better than him, and Straw replied “well, I’ve never met you, but. . . yes.”
So, yeah, that’s the response that Shohei can give to every single human being, living or dead. He’s the greatest baseball player of all-time.
Tl;dr, just give me his 2023 stats.
As a hitter: 135 G, .304/.412/.654, 44 HR, 20 SB, 184 OPS+
As a pitcher: 23 Starts, 132 IP, 85 H, 55 BB, 167 SO, 3.14 ERA, 142 ERA+
The man led all of baseball with 10.0 bWAR despite missing almost all of September. He finished in the top 10 in 24 different offensive categories, while also compiling the third-most strikeouts of any pitcher and the sixth-best ERA+.
Why would he be a good fit for the 2024 Red Sox?
Because he’s the greatest baseball player of all time.
Why would he not be a good fit for the 2024 Red Sox?
Well, here’s the deal: more than anything else, the Boston Red Sox need starting pitching. Shohei is an outstanding starting pitcher who would immediately slot in as the Opening Day starter . . . if he were healthy. Unfortunately, Ohtani tore the infamous UCL in his pitching elbow back in August and underwent surgery a few weeks ago. Notably, this surgery was reportedly not Tommy John (which he’s already had) but another procedure to, in the words of his doctor, “repair the issue at hand and to reinforce the healthy ligament in place while adding viable tissue for the longevity of the elbow.” No one really knows what that means, but double elbow surgeries are scary things for pitchers and he won’t pitch at all next year. Sadly, it’s not clear whether his arm will ever return to its previous superhero status.
He does still plan on hitting as a full-time DH next season and would be welcome in any lineup. But the thing about the Sox right now is that Ohtani the hitter isn’t really what the team needs. With Rafael Devers and Triston Casas in the heart of the order, the Sox are in a pretty good place when it comes to left-handed power. In fact they’re in a pretty good place when it comes to left-handed everything since, aside from free-agents-to-be Justin Turner and Adam Duvall, almost all of their top offensive performers were lefties. So Ohtani only exacerbates an unbalanced lineup that needs to be addressed this offseason.
Moreover, he doesn’t do anything to fix the team’s other fatal flaw: defense. In fact, in light of the fact that three of the team’s best offensive players were butchers in the field last season and, ideally, should be DHs (we’re talking about Devers, Casas, and Masataka Yoshida, here) Ohtani’s presence would actually make it even harder to fix the defense.
What will he cost?
Jesus, I have no idea. Before the injury, there was speculation that his contract could rise to as much as $600 million. That’s significantly larger than any contract ever given out by a sports team not owned by the Saudi royal family, but it’s actually easy to see where that comes from: he’s both a top-10 hitter and a top-10 pitcher, so take Aaron Judge’s contract and add it to Gerrit Cole’s and you’re at $600 million.
The injury will unquestionably knock that number down significantly, but there are so many variables at play that it’s really hard to settle on a number. Outside of the Padres and Yankees, most teams these days have been very hesitant to dish out contracts north of $250 million, let alone one that could be double that. He’s still worth over $200 million as a hitter alone, but if his arm never bounces back, then that’s a really expensive DH you have on your hands (although he could probably transition to an excellent defensive right fielder, seeing as how he’s one of the fastest players in the game).
And then there’s the specter of further injuries. The miracle of Shohei is that he gives you two all-stars in one roster spot. But that also means that an injury to Ohtani is more costly to his team than an injury to any other player. Imagine what a disaster it would be if a team’s best pitcher and best hitter collided on a play and simultaneously suffered injuries that would keep them both out for the next two months. That’s basically what would happen if Shohei ever broke his wrist.
But then again, how could anyone not want this guy on their team? He instantly makes you the biggest story in the game. He’s the rare baseball player whose fame transcends the sport. He’ll sellout your ballpark and double your merchandise sales (though it should be noted that merchandise is subject to revenue sharing, so he’s not just a complete money printer there). He’s Shohei Freakin’ Ohtani.
Show me a cool highlight.
You’ve seen the mammoth home runs and the 100 MPH fastballs. What takes Shohei from the realm of “wow, this guy’s amazing” to the realm of “seriously, how is this a real human being” is that he’s also incredibly fast.
Smash or pass?
Look, there are all sorts of reasons why passing on Shohei might be the prudent move. But, frankly, I’ve grown really sick and tired of thinking about sports in terms of prudence and long-term risk management.
And in my personal case — AND, YES, I UNDERSTAND THAT WHAT I’M ABOUT TO SAY PUTS ME ALMOST COMPLETELY ALONE ON AN ISLAND OF ONE — I would rather watch Ohtani play for my favorite team for the next ten years than win a championship (not that we have to choose between the two; he’s a great player who makes your team better, duh). I’m at a point in my fandom where winning only carries so much importance to me. I’ve followed winning teams and I’ve followed losing teams. And while the former is more fun in the moment, none of us are actually changed in any meaningful way as human beings when our favorite team wins a championship. This isn’t to say that sports aren’t important, but it’s to say that the things that are important about sports — community, ritual, collective memory, intellectual and emotional experience — aren’t necessarily tied to wins and losses.
We don’t watch sports for the pleasure of monitoring steady sustainability; we watch it in the hopes of seeing something sublime, and there’s nothing in sports more sublime than Shohei Ohtani.