Over the weekend, Shohei Ohtani’s representatives at CAA told the Washington Nationals they would not be granted an in-person meeting with him, thereby ending any slim hopes they had of adding the two-way Japanese superstar. Seven teams, most of them on the West Coast, are still in the running. The Nationals will move on, their roster unaltered by his presence in the United States, their division entirely unaffected by his arrival. Ohtani eliminated all of the other National League East teams from contention, too.
But the Nationals will not be unaffected by the sweepstakes, nor the pursuit of (for now) Miami Marlins star Giancarlo Stanton. According to reports, the Giants, Cardinals and perhaps even the Dodgers will continue their chase of the highly paid slugger. The Nationals have not surfaced as a major player for his services, either.
Ohtani and Stanton have consumed baseball headlines this winter, in part because they have had so little competition. The free agent market is moving sluggishly. Few trades have been consummated, and none has registered on the baseball Richter scale. But the consensus (and common sense) holds that once Ohtani and Stanton find their new homes, movement will begin. Teams that miss out on one or both will move to their second options, whether via trade or high-profile free agents such as J.D. Martinez or Yu Darvish. The Nationals don’t expect to mount a serious pursuit of any such free agents, though they can never be counted out entirely.
Still, when Ohtani and Stanton move, and the market starts to move with them, the Nationals will get a better sense of how the market might value things they need — namely, power-hitting bench pieces, a back-end starter and middle relievers. Those types of players do not dictate the market. Those types of players have their value determined by others on the market. Once the highest profile slugger (Stanton) lands somewhere, teams posturing for power will shift to other options. Once Ohtani lands, someone’s rotation will gain a bona fide front-end type — leaving other teams who need one to the rest of the market. Ohtani and Stanton have become the unofficial gatekeepers for the offseason. And both of them will likely land somewhere just in time for next week’s winter meetings in Orlando. The Nationals’ activity levels could increase then.
So besides the obvious effects the Nationals feel from Ohtani and Stanton’s stint in purgatory — from the potential for Ohtani to land with an October rival such as the Chicago Cubs or Los Angeles Dodgers to the departure of a notorious Nats slayer from the National League East — the rhythm of their offseason will also change because of them.
The rhythm of next offseason could change, too. Whichever team lands Stanton likely will not have the financial bandwidth to mount a heated pursuit of Bryce Harper next offseason, when the youngest unanimous MVP in baseball history is expected to receive the largest contract in baseball history. Stanton’s deal, worth $325 million, currently holds that title. Should the Dodgers (or even Giants or Cardinals) snag Stanton, they might not have the money to do the same for Harper next winter, eliminating a potential suitor.
The chase for Harper has loomed over the Nationals since last year’s winter meetings, when speculation about the size of his deal swirled. Stanton and Harper are two of the game’s elite power hitters and stars, members of a class of high-priced, high-profile talent that many teams cannot afford. Their suitors, while nominally numerous, are practically limited. The movement of one such player likely affects the other.
So while the Nationals are on the outside looking in at the two most high-profile stories of a slow baseball offseason, they are not unaffected by them. They will not sign Ohtani, and that is no surprise. They are not currently in the running for Stanton, and that is no surprise, either. But those two will dictate what comes next, at least a little bit, and are worth watching closely as they find new homes in the weeks to come.
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