May 29, 2024

As the Dodgers were Saving for Shohei this year, something unexpected happened. They ran away with the National League West. They might not have the starting pitching to win the World Series, but they could secure their 10th division title in 11 years as early as this weekend.

The Dodgers didn’t need Shohei Ohtani to reach the playoffs and they won’t need him to do so again next season.

Which is precisely why they’re the most logical destination for Ohtani when he becomes a free agent this winter.

They won’t overburden him the way the Angels have, or the way many other teams would. The Dodgers can provide him with the expertise required for him to return to the mound and the environment necessary for him to remain on the field once he does. They also can provide him with a career-defining challenge, as they have an extensive history of postseason failure they’re looking to rewrite.

Ohtani has a torn ulnar collateral ligament and is unlikely to pitch next year, but the Dodgers remain interested in pursuing him this offseason, according to people familiar with the team’s thinking who spoke under the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the subject.

The 29-year-old has been guarded about what he’s looking for in free agency, but his agent said last week that being a two-way player again is a main priority. The Dodgers can make that happen, and they’re distinctly positioned to do so without compromising their October ambitions.

None of this guarantees Ohtani will choose the Dodgers. One baseball insider half-joked that this column could be “the kiss of death” for the Dodgers, considering Ohtani’s individualistic nature. Would a player who has spent his career defying convention sign with a team that everyone says he should pick?

Regardless, Ohtani will have to consider what the Dodgers can provide him.

While the Dodgers have sustained a number of pitching injuries in recent years, they also have a history of helping pitchers come back from major elbow procedures. They even specifically target pitchers who could be undervalued because they are recovering from surgeries.

The Dodgers drafted Walker Buehler, Caleb Ferguson and Michael Grove shortly before or after they underwent elbow reconstructions. They signed Tommy Kahnle to a two-year deal before the 2021 season, even though they knew he’d spend the first year of the contract in rehabilitation. Kahnle made their postseason roster in his second season with them.

The idea that Ohtani wouldn’t want to play on the East Coast because of the greater scrutiny is ludicrous — he might be the most famous person in his home country of Japan, which tracks his every move — but there could be other benefits to him staying in Southern California. A consistent schedule is paramount for a pitcher who is recovering from an injury, and there are almost no rainouts here. Ohtani, and not the weather, will dictate when he throws.

Equally if not more important is what will happen after he resumes pitching.

If anything was proven this season, it’s that even Ohtani has limits. Until he strained an oblique muscle this month, he was in the lineup for all but two of the Angels’ games. This was Ohtani’s call. But the Angels were in no position to convince him to take a day off. They were on the fringes of playoff contention for the majority of the season, and Ohtani wanted to win. He wanted to play in October.

Angels' Shohei Ohtani follows through on a double during the third inning against the New York Mets.

Angels’ Shohei Ohtani follows through on a double during the third inning against the New York Mets on Aug. 25 in New York.

(Frank Franklin II / Associated Press)

Before he injured his elbow, Ohtani pitched every six days or so, in addition to hitting every day. The workload affected him. He never looked like the pitcher he was last year. His velocity was down. His command was off. Players on other teams said they sensed something was wrong with him.

Ohtani prematurely departed from an early August start because of a finger cramp. Two weeks later, he skipped his turn in the rotation. He registered only four outs in his next start, after which he was diagnosed with a torn UCL.

To reiterate, it was Ohtani who pushed his body to this point. But a team that was never in danger of missing the playoffs might be more successful talking him into taking periodic breaks. Such a team would be able to tell him something the Angels never could, that his focus should be on preparing for October.

Only two teams would have enjoyed such a luxury this year, the Dodgers and the Atlanta Braves.

The Braves were too cheap to re-sign franchise icon Freddie Freeman when he became a free agent after they won the World Series in 2021. They aren’t expected to be one of the teams that make a nine-figure offer to Ohtani this winter.

The Dodgers, on the other hand, can afford Ohtani after a year in which their spending was measured.

While exercising an uncharacteristic degree of financial restraint, the Dodgers still built a team that could win its division by 15 games. Their mastery of the regular season will continue indefinitely. No other team in baseball, not the Boston Red Sox, not the New York Yankees, not even the Braves, has such a clear path to the playoffs year after year.

So long as that remains the case, what’s best for Ohtani also will be what’s best for the Dodgers.

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