As the off-season barrels slowly, but surely, towards Spring Training, the “dead zone” for baseball continues. Unlike in seasons past, with the big targets all off the board, the free agency buzz is all but done. The drama of Carlos Correa’s ankle and contract does add an interesting twist to things, but others, pending any major trades, the headline player moves are mostly complete. For the Astros, the team said farewell to Verlander, brought in Abreu, and retained Montero and Brantley. They still maintain the core of the team that methodically bludgeoned the league to the tune of 106 regular season wins and a 11-2 playoff record on its way to a second World Series win in six years.
However, that does not mean that the Astros will necessarily sit back and not make any other significant moves before the 1st pitch of the 2023 season. Remember back in 2018 when the team swung a major late-off-season deal to bring in then-Pittsburgh ace Garrett Cole for Joe Musgrove and a couple of other players. Cole was not immediately facing free agency at the end of the 2018 season, but Pittsburgh was a team on the road to nowhere, so the thought was ‘why not move him to get something?’. Could another big-name player from a team in baseball purgatory find himself in the navy and orange before the start of the season?
Enter Shohei Ohtani. The Ace/DH Japanese superstar, he is set to hit free agency at the end of the 2023 season. After a slowish adjustment to the American game and recovery from Tommy John surgery in 2019, Ohtani now rates as a baseball unicorn: A top tier pitcher and hitter.
Not even late Red Sox Babe Ruth achieved what Ohtani has inside the foul lines. The undisputed 2021 AL MVP and runner-up 2022 MVP, Othani, still shy of 29, is slated to cash in big time on the free agency market. Combine the hitting prowess of Aaron Judge, who cashed in to the tune of 9 years/$360M, and the pitching wizardry of Justin Verlander, who went 2 years/$86.5M, and anyone wanting his services will need to have over $400M in escrow just to get a meeting.
With Ohtani wanting to actually experience a post-season once in his MLB life, and given that the Angels haven’t been able to even sniff any semblance of contention in his 5 years in Anaheim/Los Angeles/California/Western Pacific Ocean territory, a change in scenery is likely.
The Angels may not immediately want to part with their star, especially as the team is looking for new ownership, but they also face the risk of losing Ohtani with no return. Current ownership stated that they don’t plan to trade him, but that is hardly set in stone. Team can and will inquire with Angeles ownership about a possible trade.
Suppose that one of those teams is the Astros, and suppose that the Angles pick up the phone and actually listen? What would the Astros gain, but what would it cost, and would it be worth it?
Gain for the Astros:
- The Astros line-up from Hades: The top 7 for the Astros figures to be among the most formidable in baseball. Picture this (notional): Altuve, Peña, Alvarez, Abreu, Bregman, Tucker, Brantley. Throw in whoever wins out in the final outfielder spot and the catcher at the 9 slot and this lineup at full strength should plate many runs. Now, add Othani and his career slash line of .267/.352/.532, with averages of 40 HRs/97 RBIs over the past two seasons. Name a top 8 hitting order that could inspire such terror in any pitching staff…no, no you cannot. What would it say about the Astros’ lineup that players like Peña and Brantley could get bumped to the bottom 3rd of the order? This also offers some significant insurance for Houston, as Abreu is no spring chicken, Alvarez has a history of injuries, and Brantley has missed significant time as well. With Othani’s bat in the line-up, it might not matter who pitches for the Astros. Speaking of which…
- Replacing an Ace with an Ace: Even with the loss of Verlander, the Astros still figure to have some of the strongest pitching depth in the majors. Valdez, Javier, McCullers, Garcia, Urquidy as starters, with guest appearances by players like Hunter Brown, gives Houston one of the strongest rotations in the majors. Now you add Othani, who brings a career 28-14 record and 2.96 ERA. Replacing the arm of Verlander with Othani could be a wash, and with Othani not having to carry a staff in Houston like he did in Anaheim and working with a organization like Houston, known to improve pitching mechanics like no other, one could only dream about the results he could offer Houston. Othani did have Tommy John surgery in 2018, but the current results demonstrate that he recovered well from that operation.
- More Prime Time Appearances, More Prime Time Money: Othani is one of the faces of MLB. A marquee player deserving of marquee attention. Throw him on a defending champion, and the number of prime-time dates should increase exponentially. It could be hard to have a Saturday or Sunday game without the star of Houston dominating the graphics. Much like it would be if the Astros added Judge, the team could only see its jersey sales and other merchandising sky-rocket, adding more money into the war chests of the Astros. That begats more money for great players and, in theory, a longer championship window.
- International Appeal: The Astros, by virtue of an international-based roster, have some oversees showing. Throw in the star Japanese player, and suddenly Houston gains even more popularity overseas. That translates into more dollars, and possibly, making Houston more attractive for foreign-based players looking to make the leap from their national leagues into the MLB.
- The Thrill of Victory: Since Ohtani joined the Angles, he has yet to end the season on a team with a winning record, to say nothing of a playoff appearance. He is still balling at a stupidly high rate, but the apparent wasting of individual efforts can grate on a player, which will inevitably impact performance. With Houston, a team just off a World Series win and 6 straight playoff appearances, Ohtani might find himself rejuvenated. A looser, happier Ohtani…that would be worth the price of admission.
However, for all the good, there are a few drawbacks that need consideration:
- Line-up chaos: This could be one of those “good” problems to have, with so many DH/hitting options. Yet, throw in Othani, and there is a possibility of too many bats and not enough balls to go around. Also, with Ohtani as a pitching DH, that might force more outfield time for Brantley and Alvarez, which is not the greatest strength of either player. Especially Brantley, who at this point in his career, will offer far more with his bat than his glove. Could this close off options for other players from the minors who have nothing more to prove in the lower tiers, but need critical MLB experience? This presumes that there are still any of those prospects left, as that leads into the next drawback…
- The price for getting Othani: Presuming that former Texans’ GM Bill O’Brien is not hired by the Angels as General Manager, any GM worth the title will ask for a king’s ransom for any trade involving Ohtani. The opening bid to even merit a return phone call would be the deal that sent Soto to the Padres (5 top prospects and an established MLB veteran). For a player the caliber of Othani, expect that to be a higher requirement.
Add in the fact that the Angels are a division rival, the price would have to be historically astronomical (so to speak). Houston, while noted for player development, still rates among the lower-tier of farm systems, mainly due to lower (or no) significant draft picks the last few seasons. Any deal for Othani would have to include the top-tier folks, like Hunter Brown, thus knee-capping any major-league ready prospects for a couple of seasons. Likely the Angles would also ask for one or more of the established Astros’ big league players (a starter and perhaps an outfielder like McCormick). Would the Astros, big on in-house development and keeping salaries from escalating, sacrifice so much for a player?
- Getting only one year for Othani: While Othani is on a 1 year/$30M extension, Othani expects to hit the market next season with a massive price tag attached. Probably $350-$400M is the overall window, and it could go higher (reports of $500M are out there). While the Astros offer a winning tradition, would Crane go against the grain to throw so much money at one player? One need only review the Astros actions with its own free agents (Cole, Springer, Correa) to see that they aren’t naturally inclined to throw a lot of money at one player. In the recent past, Houston flirted with such rental moves in the recent past, mainly the run at Bryce Harper in 2018 with no certainty or chance to re-sign him in the 2018 off-season. The Astros are already World Series-or-Bust, but a rental of Ohtani might be a little rich for Houston’ blood.
- Is Othani Ready for a “Heel Response?”: Granted, Ohtani is no stranger to boos and smack talk from other fanbases. However, it might be a bit jarring to be going to the “dark side” in Houston. Any player will have to be ready for all the taunts and jeers about “cheating” and other, uh, “not-for-mixed/sensitive-company language.” Most of the Astros on the roster have long-since accepted this fate. Likely Ohtani is used to this, but until experienced, it is hard to know how he will react.
Wrap-up on the Thought Experiment: Adding Ohtani to the current Astros line-up arguably make them the heavy-money favorite to repeat as World Series champions. A hungry force like Ohtani could eliminate all concerns about complacency or a winner’s hangover. The possibilities for what he could do on the mound and at the plate are too delicious for any Astros fan to not salivate over.
HOWEVER, the price for such ambitions or dreams might be a bridge too far for the Astros. To make that happen, the Astros could expect to knee-cap, if not outright destroy, their near-term future prospects. Also, unless Houston could get Othani to agree to a long-term extension on relatively team-friendly terms, or Houston is ready to go all-in on one player and blow past the CBT limits, the juice of obtaining Othani might not be worth the squeeze. Never say never, but the only realistic chance of seeing Othani wearing the “Star H” this season is if you make it happen in MLB The Show 2023.