How MLB free agency will play out once Shohei Ohtani signs

All eyes have been on Shohei Ohtani this offseason — and understandably so, as the two-way star is expected to sign a contract in the range of $500 to $600 million, the largest guarantee in North American sports history.

But his free agency has been shrouded in secrecy, with little known about his career desires, where he wants to play and which team’s he has been talking to — though that changed during MLB’s winter meetings as certain teams acknowledged meeting with Ohtani, despite warnings from Ohtani’s camp about sharing that type of information.

So, as we await Ohtani’s decision, we thought it might be fun to look at how the dominoes will fall. We’ve enlisted the help of ESPN MLB experts Jeff Passan, David Schoenfield, Kiley McDaniel, Bradford Doolittle and Alden Gonzalez to map out the moves that will come once Ohtani picks his team.

For this activity, we’re going to focus on six teams: the Los Angeles Dodgers, Toronto Blue Jays, Los Angeles Angels, Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox and New York Mets. We’ll send Ohtani to the Dodgers, Jays and Angels in three separate scenarios and then go through how the other teams will pivot in free agency as a result of Ohtani’s choice.

If Ohtani signs with the … Dodgers

The Dodgers have prepared for the Ohtani sweepstakes for a couple of years now, sitting out last offseason’s free agent extravaganza and lowering their payroll down to about $158 million entering this offseason, nearly $100 million less than 2023’s total (which in turn was lower than where it was in 2021 and 2022). Only Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman are signed beyond 2025, giving the Dodgers the long-term flexibility to sign Ohtani — not to mention a fearsome threesome to lead the lineup. How about Ohtani, Betts and Freeman and hitting 1-2-3? Better yet, they can sign Ohtani and still have room to add to the rotation. It’s nice to be the Dodgers. As for the Ohtani runner-ups … — Schoenfield

Blue Jays’ next move: Aside from being extremely sad? Toronto went into this winter wanting to land a big fish, and Ohtani and Juan Soto were the two prized tunas in the ocean. If they want a bat, they could pivot to Cody Bellinger to fill the center-field gap left behind by Kevin Kiermaier’s departure. If they want an arm, they can go head-to-head with the most moneyed teams in baseball and take a crack at Yoshinobu Yamamoto. Either way, the disappointment of going after the biggest stars available and missing would be palpable for a team that deeply desired a win to erase the disillusionment of another early postseason exit. — Passan

Cubs’ next move: Bring back Bellinger. The Cubs are looking for a big bat to add to the lineup and with Ohtani out of the mix, Bellinger is the next-best position player. He and Ohtani obviously aren’t one-for-one replacements at the plate, much less in overall quality, position or pitching ability, but the Cubs’ lineup has enough versatile pieces to make room for a top-notch player at a number of positions. The other main suitor for Bellinger was perceived to be the Yankees, who solved their outfield issues by trading for Soto (and Trent Grisham) Wednesday night. — McDaniel

Red Sox’s next move: Boston’s primary focus is the rotation — which Ohtani would have helped out starting in 2025 — but this is also an organization that has long valued production from the DH slot, from David Ortiz to J.D. Martinez to Justin Turner. Martinez and Turner are free agents, but let’s give the Red Sox Jorge Soler. With all their left-handed hitters, they need a righty masher, and Soler slugged .688 last season against southpaws and at 31 is younger than Martinez or Turner. They should keep their prospects in an improving farm system, so let’s have them dig into free agency to add rotation depth rather than a trade: Shota Imanaga (Kiley McDaniel’s No. 11 ranked free agent) and Seth Lugo, who pitched well as a starter with the San Diego Padres. That gives them eight solid rotation options: Imanaga, Lugo, Bryan Bello, Chris Sale, Tanner Houck, Kutter Crawford, Nick Pivetta and Garrett Whitlock. — Schoenfield

Angels’ next move: Trade Mike Trout. Start over. Build around Zach Neto, Nolan Schanuel and Logan O’Hoppe. Throw Jo Adell out there and let him sink or swim. Yes, I know what the words “Mike Trout is not getting traded, one hundred percent” mean. I would trade him anyway, to the Philadelphia Phillies most likely, since that might be the only place to which you could convince him to waive his no-trade clause. But if Ohtani goes, this era of Angels baseball needs to transition to the next, and it needs to be done carefully and with patience. — Doolittle

Mets’ next move: The Mets are a lot more likely to sign Yamamoto than they are to sign Ohtani, so for them this isn’t so much of a pivot as it is, seemingly, their No. 1 priority. They need starting pitching, and Yamamoto would make for a nice top-of-the-rotation pairing with Japanese countryman Kodai Senga. At 25, Yamamoto fits perfectly with their pursuit of long-term sustainability and their plan to seemingly be at their best in 2025 and 2026 as opposed to 2024. Mets owner Steve Cohen, who reportedly flew to Japan to meet with Yamamoto recently, has the money to outbid everybody for his services. And it’s a crowded field. — Gonzalez

If Ohtani signs with the … Blue Jays

At the start of the offseason, the Blue Jays were hardly the favorite to sign Ohtani. One betting site had them tied for the 12th lowest odds at the onset of the offseason (tied at 25-1 with the Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals). But maybe it shouldn’t be a big surprise if they land him.

The Jays have a deep-pocketed owner in Rogers Communications, which could use Ohtani to headline its Blue Jays broadcasts across Canada. Plus, they need help on the field. While they’re one of just five teams to win at least 88 games each of the past three seasons, they’re a big, fat 0-4 in playoff games, scoring one run in their two losses to the Minnesota Twins. Meanwhile, the offense plummeted from top three in the AL in runs in 2020, ’21 and ’22 to eighth in 2023 and clearly lacked a left-handed hitter to go with Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and George Springer. With a veteran rotation, it’s also imperative for the Jays to go all-in right now while the rotation still projects as one of the best in the majors. — Schoenfield

Dodgers’ next move: The Dodgers are almost as interested in Yamamoto as they are in Ohtani, and one can make a strong case that Yamamoto — who will actually pitch next season — makes them better in 2024. This is clearly where they’ll pivot if they can’t get Ohtani. They’d love to sign them both, but getting just one would be looked upon as a massive success. The Dodgers want to add two to three starting pitchers this offseason, and Yamamoto is at the forefront of their plans. He’s going to command a contract in excess of $200 million, but he’s also just 25 years old. And they’ve had their eyes on him for a while. — Gonzalez

Cubs’ next move: I had the Cubs bringing back Bellinger in the first scenario, but you could argue that Matt Chapman fits them better as the big offensive addition to their lineup. With Christopher Morel being more of a corner utility type who can play a number of positions capably, adding a strong glove at third in Chapman makes team building a bit easier. There’s a potential desire for another veteran in center field before prospect Pete Crow-Armstrong — who was called up for the last month of the season — takes the job, to then have the vet move into a platoon/reserve role. At the higher end of the market, KBO outfielder Jung-hoo Lee could be a fit, with Michael A. Taylor or Adam Duvall as lower-end everyday options and Kiermaier and Harrison Bader in the higher upside bucket despite some durability issues. — McDaniel

Red Sox’s next move: I gave the Red Sox Soler and two starting pitchers last time. This time, I’m giving them Yamamoto. Check that list of starters above. OK, I’ll repeat it: Bello, Sale, Pivetta, Houck, Crawford, Whitlock. I don’t see an ace in there, that’s for sure. Yamamoto gives them the No. 1 starter they haven’t really had since Sale first injured his shoulder during the World Series season of 2018. –– Schoenfield

Angels’ next move: Well, since the Angels are adamant that they won’t trade Trout, then trade everyone else. The veterans that is. Fold in some future value and eat some cash to move Anthony Rendon. Find a taker for your good over-30 hitters like Brandon Drury and Taylor Ward. With or without Trout, the direction is the same: full reset. The Detroit Tigers did it with Miguel Cabrera still around and so the Angels can do it with Trout. — Doolittle

Mets’ next move: Yamamoto or bust. The Mets’ dalliance with Ohtani was short-lived, and as much as they would’ve loved rostering him, their most acute need in 2024 and beyond is in a rotation decimated by trades and ineffectiveness. Getting Yamamoto won’t be easy. The New York Yankees want him. The Dodgers, especially if they don’t get Ohtani, will want him. Getting into a bidding war with the two marquee franchises in baseball isn’t anybody’s idea of a good time. For free agents, Ohtani going to Toronto is the best-case scenario, because it shortens the supply of top-end players in a market where all the high-dollar teams are primed to spend. — Passan

If Ohtani signs with the … Angels

Maybe Ohtani is comfortable in Anaheim. Maybe Ohtani looks at Neto and Schanuel and sees a brighter future. Maybe he appreciates the organization that let him do it his way in turning into a two-way superstar. Maybe he just doesn’t want to leave a stadium he loves to hit in (he’s hit 99 home runs at Angel Stadium in his career and 72 on the road). Maybe after all this, he simply ends up back with the Angels. — Schoenfield

Dodgers’ next move: The Dodgers don’t seem to have a ton of interest in Blake Snell, and if Yamamoto is off the board, their best chance at a high-impact starting pitcher could be through a trade. Enter Dylan Cease, who possesses electric stuff and comes with two years of control (as opposed to Tyler Glasnow and Corbin Burnes, who have only one). The Dodgers are the type of team that can help Cease recapture his dominance from 2022. And they have the trade assets to beat out the competition for his services. — Gonzalez

Blue Jays’ next move: The market for Korean star Jung-hoo Lee is sprawling, and teams believe he could fetch a deal in excess of the five years and $90 million Boston gave Masataka Yoshida last year. The fit with Toronto makes sense. Lee is a no-doubt center fielder. He gets on base and could join Bichette and Guerrero atop the Blue Jays’ lineup. He doesn’t strike out much, though those numbers are likely to climb in his KBO-to-MLB transition. Lee wouldn’t necessarily be the kind of signing the Blue Jays envisioned coming into a winter in which the most talented player ever was a legitimate and realistic target, but bringing him onboard unquestionably would make Toronto a better team than it is right now. — Passan

Cubs’ next move: The Cubs’ rotation is solid and has some help coming in Cade Horton, but I could see a standout lefty in the bullpen putting them over the top, making the pen a strength of the team. Luckily for them, the top reliever on the market, Josh Hader, is a lefty and one of the best closers in baseball. Being able to shift Adbert Alzolay and Julian Merryweather into the eighth- and seventh-inning roles with Drew Smyly as a multirole left-handed option puts them in a better late-game strategic position for a potential playoff run. — McDaniel

Red Sox’s next move: The Red Sox could use help at second base and the outfield (especially if they use Masataka Yoshida at DH). Whit Merrifield can help at both positions, and while he doesn’t move the needle in a big way, he’s a useful utility player. And that still leaves plenty of room in the payroll to sign a starter. Jordan Montgomery might not be a No. 1, but one thing he has done since returning from Tommy John surgery is post: 30 starts in 2021, 32 in 2022 and 32 in 2023. The Red Sox had one starter make 30 starts over the past two seasons (Pivetta in 2022). When they last made the playoffs in 2021, they had three. Every team needs a couple of horses in the rotation and Montgomery fits. — Schoenfield

Mets’ next move: Sign Hader. I know the Mets are in on Yamamoto and they shouldn’t break off that pursuit. But new president of baseball operations David Stearns knows Hader well from their Milwaukee association and a two-headed back of the bullpen with Hader and Edwin Diaz would be epic. And it would make New York a bear to overcome in a playoff context. The Mets need to be targeted with their free agency splashes. Winning the Ohtani pursuit would have fit that objective, as would a successful wooing of Yamamoto, and Hader is another one of the few real impact free agents in this market. Those are the players the Mets should be all in on pursuing. — Doolittle

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