After winning Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes, what comes next for Dodgers?

Rowan Kavner

After months shrouded in secrecy, weeks of clandestine courtships and 24 volatile hours of wild, rampant speculation about his whereabouts and desires, the most highly coveted free agent in baseball history announced his intentions with a plain, blue-and-white team logo on Instagram.

Shohei Ohtani, now the richest player in North American sports, will be joining the Los Angeles Dodgers. 

He didn’t have to move far to envision a more prosperous future. Ohtani will travel up the 5 freeway, departing an Angels team that failed to provide the ancillary pieces necessary to get him to the postseason over his six-year tenure in Anaheim in favor of a franchise that has reached the playoffs 11 straight seasons — and imagined a future with Ohtani throughout that span. 

Three times over the past decade, the Dodgers pursued Ohtani. They wanted him out of high school, at a time no one could’ve fathomed the scope of his two-way talents, but he stayed in Japan. They wanted him again when he made the jump to the majors in 2018, but the absence of the designated hitter in the National League thwarted those efforts. Plus, as an international amateur free agent, they were capped on what they could spend, unable to flex their financial might in a way that might entice him further. 

With their third opportunity to lure a unicorn, there were no such restrictions. And after back-to-back first-round playoff exits, the Dodgers’ pursuit of the two-time MVP would not be denied. 

Ironically, the player the Dodgers envisioned as a pitcher out of high school will now only be hitting for them, at least in 2024. 

Ohtani is coming off an MVP season in which he led the majors in OPS as a hitter while posting one of the best strikeout rates and batting averages against as a pitcher. That latter skill will be put on ice. Ohtani tore his UCL in August and underwent his second major elbow procedure in September, a surgery that will render him unable to take the mound next season. 

And yet, Ohtani’s 10-year, $700 million deal obliterated even the wildest projections, blowing Mike Trout’s 12-year, $426.5 million contract — previously, the most lucrative pact in the sport — out of the water. For some perspective, 2022 American League MVP Aaron Judge will make $40 million next year. Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, the highest-paid pitchers in the sport, will make $43.33 million. Ohtani’s prorated salary will be $70 million. 

The deal reportedly includes considerable deferrals, easing the luxury-tax burden on a team that will also be paying Mookie Betts through the 2032 season and Freddie Freeman through 2027. With those three atop the lineup, the Dodgers will employ the reigning AL MVP and the National League MVP runners-up — three of the four most valuable players in the sport last year by wins above replacement — forming one of the most formidable offensive trios ever assembled. 

Whatever happens next, Ohtani’s signing makes this winter a dashing success for the Dodgers. It does not, however, answer their most glaring need. 

What does Shohei Ohtani’s signing mean for the Dodgers?

What does Shohei Ohtani's signing mean for the Dodgers?

The Dodgers ranked 20th in rotation ERA last year, an uncomfortable spot for a group that led the NL in the category each of the previous six seasons. They were forced to power their way to wins, which their offense did most nights en route to a third straight 100-win season (and fourth straight 100-win full season). 

There were still some organizational pitching wins. Bobby Miller emerged as one of the top rookies in the sport. Emmet Sheehan flashed his upside while Ryan Pepiot, after missing most of the year, took a notable step forward in his eight appearances. But the Dodgers’ starting pitching dearth — caused in large part by injury — would eventually catch up, playing a major role in a second straight playoff defeat at the hands of an NL West runners-up. 

Their 40-man roster is littered with young talents on the mound — from Miller to Pepiot to Sheehan to Michael Grove and Gavin Stone. More are on the way in Nick Frasso, Kyle Hurt and Landon Knack, all of whom could make an impact at some point in 2024. But the lack of experience is glaring. 

Clayton Kershaw is a free agent, and president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said the Dodgers will give him space to get clarity on his decision after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery. Walker Buehler should be ready to return, but he’s coming off a second Tommy John surgery. Tony Gonsolin and Dustin May are unlikely to pitch next year. The Dodgers desperately need arms to fill out their rotation. 

“When you think you’ve got enough,” general manager Brandon Gomes said earlier this month, “it’s probably not enough.” 

Expect the rest of the offseason to be focused on that endeavor, whether through free agency, trades or both. 

It remains to be seen how the financial commitment made to Ohtani will impact their ability to compete for the top free-agent pitchers on the market, a plentiful group headlined by Japanese sensation Yoshinobu Yamamoto, reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell and World Series champion Jordan Montgomery. 

But the Dodgers’ robust farm system opens another avenue.  

As of now, the Dodgers are operating under the assumption Gavin Lux, who missed the 2023 season after tearing his ACL in spring, will take the majority of reps at shortstop. Miguel Rojas provides depth behind him. Betts, a six-time Gold Glove Award winner in right field, is expected to see most of his time at second base. Jason Heyward will return, helping fill a corner outfield void, but more moves will likely be made to address that spot.

That leaves little obvious playing time for 24-year-old Miguel Vargas, who did not hit the way the Dodgers expected in his debut season but offers plenty of offensive upside, and 26-year-old Michael Busch, who Friedman said earlier this month is clearly a major-league player. With those two, plus a litany of talented arms throughout the system, the Dodgers could put together as strong a package as any team to acquire pitching help. Will that be enough to get Corbin Burnes from Milwaukee, Tyler Glasnow from Tampa Bay or Dylan Cease from the White Sox? 

With their greatest pursuit complete, their chase for pitching begins.

Rowan Kavner covers the Dodgers and MLB as a whole for FOX Sports. He previously was the Dodgers’ editor of digital and print publications. Follow him on Twitter at @RowanKavner. 

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