LOS ANGELES — Shohei Ohtani was swarmed in an instant by the Los Angeles Dodgers’ new reality, looking down the whole way before looking up at the mob of cellphones and cameras and ropes in front of him. He has long been a marvel, a celebrity before he’d graduated high school. But this? The drive from Anaheim is less than an hour (barring traffic), but what he’s stepping into in Los Angeles feels farther than that. This was a spectacle.
His mere presence at the Dodgers’ annual FanFest on Saturday seemingly turned DodgerFest into ShoheiFest. Just look at the beefed-up security detail that followed every step he took. Or the horde of cameras shuttling in and out as he spoke with English and Japanese media. Or the fact that, in the Dodgers’ billion-dollar offseason, no one has been talked about more than their $700 million man.
“I feel the free agency had a lot to do with me getting a lot of attention,” Ohtani said through his interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara. “(But) I still haven’t played a game with a Dodger uniform on.”
Away we go. pic.twitter.com/HVIghaLcwu
— Fabian Ardaya (@FabianArdaya) February 3, 2024
Nonetheless, the walls in the Dodgers team store were lined with Ohtani’s No. 17. An event built for optimism came with the air of a coronation for a new era, and with it, new expectations. The Dodgers have recruited stars before, and even they couldn’t fathom what comes next with their newest star-studded teammate.
“Nobody’s going to get the welcome that Shohei Ohtani is about to get,” Mookie Betts said. “So there’s no sense in me trying to explain to him what he’s about to get. I think I’m going to be giving him an ovation just like everybody else is.”
This is the new territory the Dodgers have created for themselves. Their talk of titles isn’t fresh. But their spending has never ventured this far, pushed further by a contract for Ohtani that seemingly greenlighted the flood that followed.
While not quite baseball’s highest payroll in 2024, as Max Muncy was quick to rebut, they’re certainly close after a staggering offseason that saw them land Ohtani, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Tyler Glasnow, Teoscar Hernández and others for a hefty price.
“Los Angeles is gonna be the epicenter of sports and baseball for the summer,” manager Dave Roberts said.
That brings expectations that seemingly have become even more grandiose with each ensuing signing. The scrutiny will be ratcheted up, from Roberts’ chair on down for a club that has seen consecutive 100-win seasons flame out in the first round and for a superstar who, despite his Ruthian efforts, has yet to even sniff a winning season, much less a deep postseason run.
“I mean,” Ohtani said, “the only choice is winning the World Series.”
But winning a title simply by spending so much would be too simple.
“Believe me,” Freddie Freeman said, “I wish buying a championship meant we win a championship.”
Ohtani’s first game actually wearing a Dodgers uniform will in all likelihood come at the Gocheok Skydome in Seoul in just 46 days — barring any unforeseen setbacks in his rehab from a second UCL reconstruction in his right elbow — with the designated hitter (for now) saying he is “very confident” his progression as a hitter will have him ready to go. He will have an even more abridged spring than the rest of his teammates but is still expected to be a regular participant throughout the rest of the season, batting third to start the season, as Roberts told a crowd of fans Saturday. The Japanese superstar has been a regular presence at Dodger Stadium since signing two months ago, stopping for photos with awestruck prospects along with getting set for the next chapter of his career.
The other phase of his rehab? Joining the list of two-time ligament reconstruction patients in returning to the mound, all while still serving as a designated hitter? Returning to his two-way form? There’s still quite a bit to figure out. Ohtani will start a throwing progression at some point while the Dodgers are in Arizona for spring training, he said, but the rest of it? Still up in the air.
“We haven’t like totally sat down and mapped that out just yet,” general manager Brandon Gomes said. “Right now, we’re kind of focused on the hitting portion of it. And obviously throwing will be a main part of it at some point, but (we) just haven’t spent a ton of time on it just yet.”
While with the Los Angeles Angels during his first rehab, Ohtani missed the opening month of the season as a hitter yet managed to handle most of his pitching rehab without missing so much as a beat at the plate workload-wise; while his numbers offensively took a dip in 2019 from where they had been the year before, he still managed to be a regular presence in the lineup until the club shut him down so he could undergo a knee procedure. Of course, Ohtani’s rehab was interrupted by the 2020 pandemic season, which impacted his ability to return to the mound properly until 2021. The Dodgers have an incentive to play the long game with a decade remaining on his deal after the Angels seemingly spent six years trying to push everything they could into not messing things up before Ohtani’s free agency.
For now, we know this: Ohtani won’t be part of the Dodgers’ rotation in 2024, but his status as a pitcher will remain something to monitor.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but Walker Buehler’s season won’t start on time. The Dodgers say it’s centered on workload more than anything else as the right-hander recovers from his second Tommy John surgery, with Buehler regularly throwing bullpens this winter and sporting a 205-pound figure after long being listed at 185 pounds.
“My elbow keeps snapping, man,” Buehler joked, “so I had to put a little weight around and try and protect it a little bit.”
The Dodgers, of course, have built-in assurances toward the beginning of the season to make sure they can get through until Buehler gets ready, adding Yamamoto, Glasnow and James Paxton thus far this winter (though Paxton has his own health concerns) to a group that still boasts homegrown talents such as Bobby Miller, Emmet Sheehan, Gavin Stone and others. There may not be a rotation in baseball that begs more for a six-man rotation even when Buehler is healthy, knowing Glasnow has never topped 120 innings and that Yamamoto would otherwise have to tweak his schedule in his transition from Japan. Though the club hasn’t formally or publicly committed to a six-man rotation yet, it should come as no surprise to see the team fashion one while popping different names up and down from Oklahoma City to help make it work.
A different name, still on the free-agent market, is Clayton Kershaw. The door remains open for a return, Gomes said, with conversations ongoing — including a text from Roberts days ago, as Kershaw and Rangers general manager Chris Young had their respective numbers retired at Highland Park High School in Texas.
“He’s always been a Dodger,” Roberts said with a smirk. “That’s our hope as well.”
What appears set is the left side of the infield, with Gomes saying Gavin Lux “absolutely” remains in line to be the Dodgers’ shortstop come Opening Day even as Lux comes off an ACL tear in his right knee last spring. The former top prospect has cleared every bar thus far short of participating in game action, saying flatly he will be ready to go when the club opens its season in Seoul.
Gomes’ statement is a declarative one for a club that has remained open to upgrading at the position throughout this winter, as The Athletic reported. It also comes as uncertainty surrounds Willy Adames, a longtime Dodgers target and Brewers shortstop who just saw his club move on from former Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes. But as of right now, the plan remains to go forward with Lux, whose last healthy season was his most encouraging one yet as a big leaguer.
That raises some questions about the defensive viability of Lux alongside Muncy at third base, particularly after Muncy’s defense slumped at the beginning and end of last season. The 33-year-old, who inked an extension early in the offseason and said Saturday he’d love to retire as a Dodger, said he “had a couple mishaps early in the season last year and that kind of just got in my head for the rest of my season” in 2023, adding that he revamped his offseason program to focus on his mobility after opposing clubs targeted his lack of range at the position over the final weeks of the season.
Some other notes from FanFest:
• Dodgers pitching prospect Nick Frasso said he will miss most, if not all, of the 2024 season after undergoing surgery in November to repair the labrum in his right shoulder after dealing with some issues during the end of his time with Triple-A Oklahoma City. Frasso, who was added to the 40-man roster this offseason, was expected to be a candidate to debut and be part of the club’s rotation depth this summer.
• The Dodgers signed right-hander Dinelson Lamet to a minor-league deal that includes an invitation to big league spring training, a league source told The Athletic. Lamet has missed significant time since his career-best 2020 season (2.09 ERA in 12 starts, earning Cy Young Award votes) and has largely been a reliever since.
(Photo of Shohei Ohtani at DodgerFest: Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)