Recently, Jim Bowden of The Athletic predicted that a potential trade package for Shohei Ohtani would either meet or exceed that of Juan Soto. We disagree.
We also see lots of articles – and lots of trade proposals here on our site – who believe that any team that trades for Ohtani would do so with an eye toward extending him long-term, and because of that, his value should be higher. Again, we disagree.
Our current estimate of Ohtani’s median value is $52M, which is the midpoint of the range between his minimum ($41.6M) and his maximum ($62.4M). That’s nowhere near Soto’s value at this year’s deadline. Let’s explore how we get this range.
Ohtani and the Angels have already agreed on a salary of $30M for his 2023 season, which will be his last before hitting free agency. As a two-way player in his prime, he’s projected to deliver $82M in field value in our model, leaving a surplus of $52M.
Keep in mind that he doesn't pitch quite as many games as other top starters, and as a DH-only when he's not pitching, he contributes no defensive value. So he's not quite a two-way player, which is why one year of prime Ohtani only looks like $82M in field value.
In any case, in order to trade for him, you’d have to a) agree to pay him the $30M he’s owed; and b) cough up a package of players whose median estimates total around $52M. Taken together, that’s already a steep price.
You might argue that he’s worth a little more than that, as an elite star who attracts fans. And that’s probably true. But we think it’s countered by the S-curve, which is a prevalent pattern we’ve noticed, in which teams have upper limits to what they’ll pay (either in salary, trade, or both) for any one player. So we’re sticking to our number for now.
Would an extension increase his trade value?
If history is any guide, it shows us that players who are close to free agency – within two years, typically – tend to get paid full market value for their post-arbitration years.
After Mookie Betts was traded to the Dodgers just before the 2021 season, he signed a 12-year, $365M extension with them, a roughly $30M+ AAV that bought out his last arbitration year and covered him through age 39. That’s not cheap, and those final years where he’s playing in his late 30s and making $27.5M figure to be underwater.
In other words, it’s a market-rate deal that was the equivalent of what he would likely get as a free agent. He signed it because he got what he wanted financially, and he liked L.A. enough that he didn’t need to test the market to beat it. From the team’s standpoint, there was no surplus value there – they had to pony up free-agent money to incentivize him not to hit the market later that year.
Francisco Lindor was a similar story. After he was traded to the Mets in April 2021, he too signed an extension that jumped the gun on his free agency, earning $341M over 10 years, through his age 37 season. He could have just waited a few months. But the Mets offered him full freight, and he could see that Mets owner Steve Cohen was spending money on other good players to build a winner, so he’d be getting paid well and would be playing for a winning team in the foreseeable future. Again, there was no surplus value for the Mets – they’ll be paying him $32M per year well into his 30s as he declines.
Most recently, Luis Castillo signed an extension with the Mariners that, by our modeling, appears to be close to what he would have received as a free agent after next year. He’ll be getting five years at $108M – close to $22M per year. It comes with an additional incentive for Castillo to perform well and stay healthy, and some downside protection for the Mariners if he doesn’t. Because it did not change his surplus value calculation materially, it signaled that the Mariners essentially paid him the retail value of his free agent years – they just did so a year or so early.
So how does this relate to Ohtani? It suggests that, as a player coming up on his final year of control, he would only sign an extension if it paid him market rate. That’s another way of saying there would be no additional surplus value if he were traded.
Could an acquiring team sign him to an extension for purely baseball field value? Absolutely. That’s what the Dodgers, Mets, and Mariners did in the above examples. But that won’t change his estimated trade value, because it wouldn’t change his surplus calculation for 2023.
What about the fact that Ohtani is a two-way player?
Doesn’t matter. The math is the math. We’ve already baked that in.
How likely is an overpay?
It would not be surprising to see a team give up a bit more than the $52M trade package we estimate, due to secondary factors like star power, marketing value, and supply-and-demand dynamics for an elite player. But again, since the $30M salary is already steep, the control is limited, and the price of the additional assets is high to boot, we suspect teams will gravitate toward the median estimate in this case.