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Ohtani represents a smart investment for certain bubble teams

Steph Chambers / Getty Images

There's never been a player like Shohei Ohtani. Even Babe Ruth didn't perform the dual role in the same volume Ohtani has over the last three seasons.

That means there's never quite been a free-agency courtship like Ohtani will have this offseason.

Despite Ohtani suffering an elbow injury late in the campaign that required surgery - though not another Tommy John procedure as he had in 2018 - he's still likely to set a free-agent record for guaranteed dollars. MLB Trade Rumors projects a 12-year, $528-million deal. Many have speculated the final number will land north of half a billion dollars.

The favorites to sign Ohtani, according to theScore Bet's odds, are the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees, San Francisco Giants, New York Mets, and Seattle Mariners - the usual suspects for high-profile free agents.

Geography was a significant factor in his first decision when he arrived from Japan in December 2017.

Of the seven finalists then, none were in the Eastern time zone, and all but the Chicago Cubs were on the West Coast. In addition to the Angels and Cubs, Ohtani visited with the Dodgers, Giants, Mariners, San Diego Padres, and Texas Rangers.

Ohtani ultimately didn't sign with the top bidder. Subject to international signing bonus restrictions because he was under 25, the Angels had the third-highest signing bonus figure at $2.3 million, trailing the Rangers and Mariners. The Cubs, Giants, Padres, and Dodgers couldn't offer him more than $300,000, but they were still among his finalists. Perhaps the top offer won't be the winning bid this time, either. Maybe his experience with the Angels will make winning and organizational competence more important, too.

Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images

We don't know all that will go into Ohtani's process, but viewing the Dodgers as heavy favorites is logical. They have location, financial strength, and team success in their favor. As far as other locations, MLB would certainly love for Ohtani to play the majority of his games where the most fans live - the Eastern time zone and in the New York market specifically. Ohtani as a Yankee would drive major media attention. The Rangers are perhaps a dark horse because they were an original Ohtani finalist, have since been major players recently in free agency, and just won a World Series. There's also no state income tax in Texas.

But rather than guess which team he might pick, theScore wondered which plausible contender Ohtani would help the most. (We'll make one assumption: after his time with the Angels, he wouldn't want to join a major rebuilding project).

Where could Ohtani make the most immediate on-field impact? Which clubs ought to bid most aggressively for his once-in-a-century skill set?

Teams in need of power

If we've learned anything in recent postseasons and team success, it's that power really matters.

It's more difficult than ever to string hits together given the strikeouts in today's game. It only becomes more difficult in the postseason when innings are concentrated among a good team's best arms.

Angels owner Arte Moreno shakes hands with Shohei Ohtani at an introductory press conference in 2017. Orange County Register / Getty

Ohtani possesses some of the best power in the game. The following teams ranked in the bottom half in home runs and won at least 75 contests last season: Toronto (188), Baltimore (183), Boston (182), San Francisco (174), Arizona (166), Miami (166), Milwaukee (165), Detroit (165), Pittsburgh (159) and Cleveland (124).

In evaluating overall slugging, the following clubs didn't break the .400 mark in slugging percentage but won at least 75 games: Yankees (.397), Pirates (.392), Brewers (.385), Giants (.383), Tigers (.382), and Guardians (.381).

While small-market teams are almost surely priced out of the Ohtani market, the Yankees, Giants, and Blue Jays rank as plausible contenders who could use a power boost.

Which teams need left-handed hitting?

Ohtani possesses not just rare power but a particular type: left-handed. Since most pitchers are right-handed, it's an important platoon edge.

Since 2020, only Kyle Schwarber (105) and Matt Olson (92) have hit more home runs as left-handed hitters against right-handed pitching than Ohtani (92).

Only Juan Soto (174 wRC+), Yordan Alvarez (167), Freddie Freeman (164), and Bryce Harper (162) have been better overall performers as left-handed batters versus right-handed pitching than Ohtani (159) in that span.

And Ohtani is getting better as he produced an MLB-best wRC+ mark (196) as a lefty against righties in 2023.

Icon Sportswire / Getty Images

Among teams that won at least 75 games last season, the Diamondbacks (99 wRC+), Reds (97), Guardians (96), Giants (94), Marlins (91), Pirates (91), Brewers (90), Yankees (89), and Tigers (87) were all below average against right-handed pitching.

To see the Yankees in such a group - and with a sub .400-slugging mark over the previous campaign - speaks to deep-rooted issues with the aging core of their lineup. Ohtani could be the keystone around which its promising wave of positional player prospects fit.

And there's also the question of balance: which teams had the fewest appearances of left-handed hitters against right-handed pitchers?

The Mariners (2,070), Atlanta Braves (2,061), Tigers (1,938), Cubs (1,832), Padres (1,831), Reds (1,742), Marlins (1,636), Blue Jays (1,520) and Yankees (1,483) were in the bottom half of such plate appearances.

It's odd to see the Yankees on that list since they have premium outfield dimensions for left-handed hitters. By contrast, the Orioles, who reconfigured their outfield dimensions to make Camden Yards less homer-friendly in left field, optimized their lineup with left-handed hitters and nearly doubled the Yankees' total.

Who lacks ace-level arms?

Ohtani likely won't pitch next season, but he should be ready early in his next contract. The signing team will be counting on it. Who's most in need of top-end starting pitchers?

Kohjiro Kinno / Getty

The Red Sox, Reds, Guardians (though they have a promising core of young starting pitchers), Tigers, Angels, Padres (Blake Snell is a free agent), and Dodgers represent a group of teams that won at least 75 games last season and lack a pitcher under club control who had a 3.0 or more WAR in 2023.

The Dodgers are particularly in need as Clayton Kershaw recently underwent shoulder surgery, and their rotation is littered with question marks. They have the greatest demand among the top contenders in the majors, especially while Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman are still elite and under contract.

Park factors

Teams should, in part, be constructed to take advantage of their ballparks, and players surely don't mind padding their stat lines.

The Red Sox (112), Reds (107), Cubs (104), Orioles (102), Phillies (102), Twins (102), Rangers (102), Diamondbacks (101), and Braves (101) are among the clubs with home-park factors that ranked better than average for left-handed hitters over the last three years.

On the run-preventions side, the Mariners, Padres, Mets, Rays, Giants, Tigers, Yankees, Brewers, Marlins, Cardinals, Dodgers, and Guardians all call pitching-favorable parks home and recorded at least 75 wins last season.

Would Ohtani rather help his stats as a hitter or pitcher? It could be a consideration in his decision, and his skills would play up even more in certain environments.

On the bubble

What we've learned in recent playoffs is that the best teams in the regular season face a much more level playing field in the postseason. We just witnessed three 100-plus-win teams lose in their opening-round series.

If we've learned anything, simply getting into the playoffs matters more than seeding. MLB just staged a World Series that featured the combined lowest seeds in history. Clubs on the bubble ought to do their utmost to improve their playoff odds.

In removing the top and bottom eight teams in the initial 2024 World Series odds, these are the remaining clubs: Blue Jays, Padres, Mariners, Twins, Mets, Diamondbacks, Cubs, Red Sox, Giants, Brewers, Reds, Guardians, Marlins, and Cardinals.

That's the initial bubble list for 2024.

These are the teams for whom Ohtani could most swing on-field fortunes and playoff chances in the near term, though his particular skill set would fill greater voids depending on the team.

So who would benefit most?

Consider the clubs that appeared three or more times in the categories above: Guardians (6), Brewers (5), Giants (5), Reds (5), Tigers (5), Red Sox (4), Yankees (4), Padres (4), Marlins (4), Cubs (3), Mariners (3), Blue Jays (3), and Pirates (3).

A historical lack of commitment by ownership to spend almost certainly eliminates teams like the Guardians, Reds, Brewers, Orioles, and Pirates from contention.

Combine plausible spending potential with club needs, and the Giants rank No. 1 as an Ohtani suitor.

Thirty years ago, the Giants signed the game's greatest left-handed hitter to a record deal, and he helped the team to four playoff appearances while becoming must-watch, power-hitting theater along the way.

Jonathan Daniel / Getty

The Red Sox and Yankees follow closely behind, and perhaps it's fitting they'd compete over the best dual-talent since Ruth. In the tightly contested AL East, Ohtani could massively change team fortunes. The Blue Jays and Cubs are also not too far distant. They all need power, ideally left-handed power. They could use more lineup balance. And he'd fit at or near the top of any of those rotations when he's back pitching.

If financial resources, geography, and team success are the key factors, then the Dodgers appear to be the favorite. But several clubs that can use him the most to improve their playoff opportunities in 2024 and beyond should make their best pitch.

Travis Sawchik is theScore's senior baseball writer.

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