June 23, 2024

Two years after they let Corey Seager walk, the Dodgers finally have to replace him.

They have to find their own Bryce Harper. They have to land another Yordan Alvarez and not trade him this time for an ineffective middle reliever.

The Dodgers have to sign Shohei Ohtani.

The World Series is over, and the Offseason of Ohtani is here. Ohtani, 29, is officially a free agent.

If the Dodgers want to be the same force in October as they are in the regular season, they’ll have to do more than adopt a new roster-building philosophy that places a greater emphasis on starting pitching. Ohtani is recovering from his second Tommy John operation and won’t be able to pitch next season, but he can also lead another transformation that is desperately required. He can cure them of the disease that causes them to choke practically every year.

Ohtani was made for the big stage. He’s no Mookie Betts.

This isn’t just about talent, of which Ohtani has more than anyone in baseball. This is also about mental and spiritual fortitude.

“[Ohtani] performing at this level, when there’s so much focus on one person … only the mentally strong are able to do that,” former Angels manager Phil Nevin told reporters this season.

Ohtani performs when he knows everyone is watching. He performs when everyone expects him to.

That’s what he did in the World Baseball Classic, both as a pitcher and hitter.

No country takes the tournament as seriously as his home country of Japan. No player, perhaps no person, is as famous as he is there.

Almost on command, Ohtani delivered. He was like Lionel Messi at the World Cup, only he didn’t require five tries to win.

His strikeout of Mike Trout to close out Japan’s victory over the United States in the championship game will remain the most iconic moment of the tournament, but the most pivotal might have been his at-bat to start the ninth inning in the semifinal against Mexico.

With Japan down by a run, Ohtani drove a pitch that was a couple of inches off the plate into the right-center field gap for a double. Ohtani scored the tying run and Japan went on to win the game.

“I had decided I was going to get on base no matter what,” Ohtani said on MLB Network.

On an appearance on “Foul Territory,” third baseman Max Muncy wondered if Dodgers hitters could be too selective for their own good. Muncy pointed to a recent trend of less disciplined teams enjoying success in the postseason.

“The teams, offensively, that are making it to the World Series,” Muncy said, “they’re going up there and they’re getting their swings off.”

Similar to how Ohtani did in that at-bat against Mexico.

Ohtani’s WBC heroics were no surprise. He spent more than a decade preparing for the event.

Because of the extraordinary popularity of high school baseball in Japan, Ohtani was nationally famous from the time he was a teenager. His every move has been chronicled by dozens of reporters at a time since then — in high school, in Japan’s professional league, in the major leagues. No player in the world has played under as much scrutiny. At the same time, the jump from an average Tuesday to, say, a WBC final isn’t as significant for Ohtani as it is for every other player.

Over the years, some Dodgers have shared Ohtani’s ability to embrace big moments.

Justin Turner was like that. Kiké Hernández and Joc Pederson were, too. However, of this group, only Seager had talent that was anywhere near Ohtani’s. Seager signed with the Texas Rangers a year after he was named the most valuable player of the 2020 World Series won by the Dodgers.

The Dodgers’ current offensive headliners, Betts and Freddie Freeman, were a combined one for 21 this postseason.

Freeman has a track record of hitting in the playoffs — he batted .357 last year and was a consistent October performer with the Atlanta Braves before that — but Betts has almost always underwhelmed. Excluding the 2020 postseason, in which games were played in empty or mostly empty stadiums, Betts is a career .231 hitter in playoffs.

Ohtani would shift attention away from Betts. He would complement Freeman. He would also introduce a measure of urgency the even-keeled Dodgers have lacked at times. Until Ohtani was shut down for the season with a strained oblique muscle in mid-September, he played every game as if his life depended on it, his effort particularly visible in how he ran the bases.

An argument could be made that upgrading the starting pitching should be a higher priority than improving the offense. Fair enough. But considering the uncertainty at the top of the rotation, solving that problem could be a multiyear project. In that case, Ohtani could be part of the solution, as he is expected to return to the mound in 2025.

Something else to consider: If the Dodgers fail to sign Ohtani, there’s no guarantee they will instead spend that money on pitching. Ohtani is a special case.

The reasons for the Dodgers wanting Ohtani extend beyond the field, Los Angeles a city of stars and Ohtani the only player in baseball who could be described like that. When Ohtani played in Anaheim, he alone was responsible for approximately $10 million in in-stadium advertising and marketing agreements, Mike DiGiovanna of The Times reported. Angel Stadium even ran commercials on its video board for Japanese cat treats.

In Ohtani, the Dodgers could have the single-most powerful marketing vehicle in the sport. They could also have the best player — for not only the part of the season they already dominate but the part they can’t master as well.

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