The first $500 million superstar? What MLB insiders are saying about Shohei Ohtani

by Daryn Albert - We spoke to executives, agents and others around baseball about a player likely to be an earth-shaking free agent next winter.

Why Shohei Ohtani is poised to become MLB's first $500M man Ronald Martinez/Getty Images 7:02 AM ET Alden GonzalezESPN Staff Writer Close ESPN baseball reporter. Covered the L.A. Rams for ESPN from 2016 to 2018 and the L.A. Angels for from 2012 to 2016. The rate of spending this offseason has been both frantic and jarring, with more than $2 billion lavished on the 10 most expensive free agents in a span of less than 10 weeks. But the most intriguing free agent in baseball history still looms. In 10 months, barring a last-minute extension with the Los Angeles Angels , it'll be Shohei Ohtani 's turn to venture into the open market. And one number keeps being brought up by the many who have pondered the two-way star's next contract: $500 million. Five offseasons ago, when his salary was compressed and his potential was limitless, the entire industry lined up to recruit Ohtani from Japan. He was too young for free agency then, which made him attainable through the major league minimum and controllable for up to six seasons. Soon, of course, there will be no ceiling on Ohtani's compensation. But some expect his market to be nearly as robust again, given the outlandish expectations that he has already exceeded. And guessing Ohtani's potential free agent contract has evolved into a fun game throughout his sport. A sampling from those we asked: A former player and current analyst predicted a new record for average annual value, somewhere between $45 million and $50 million, stretched out over eight years. An agent -- not his own -- guessed a 10-year, $430 million contract, which would top the $40 million average annual value that Aaron Judge recently attained and also surpass Mike Trout 's record-setting guarantee of $426.5 million. A rival executive, noting the inordinate number of long-term deals handed out this offseason, took it even further, speculating a 12-year, $480 million mega-contract. And yet some believe those estimations might fall short, suggesting that if Ohtani continues on his current path and puts together another historic season as both a pitcher and a hitter, an unprecedented, recently unimaginable round number might not just be attainable but perhaps even likely. North American professional athletes have yet to reach $500 million; the closest, perhaps, is Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who signed a 10-year, $450 million extension in 2020, though that deal guarantees only about $141 million. But there is a growing belief that Ohtani might actually get there, and that everything seems to be lining up in order to make that happen. Below we explored three key reasons for that belief, based on conversations with executives and agents throughout the industry over the past several months. We've never seen anyone quite like him before Ohtani is, simply put, a top-of-the-rotation starter and a middle-of-the-order hitter in one package -- at a time when the sport places more of a premium on versatility and flexibility than ever before. In 2021 and 2022, Ohtani ranked 10th in the majors in weighted runs created plus (wRC+) and ninth in the majors -- among those who accumulated at least 200 innings -- in expected fielding independent pitching (xFIP). Put another way, Ohtani stood among the top 8% in arguably the most well-rounded, comprehensive statistics for hitters and pitchers over a two-year period. Put yet another way : Ohtani had a higher wRC+ than Austin Riley , Jose Ramirez , Mookie Betts , Manny Machado and Rafael Devers , and he had a lower xFIP than Aaron Nola , Framber Valdez , Max Scherzer , Max Fried and Sandy Alcantara -- just to name a handful of the very best at what they do. Editor's Picks The winter of the epic contract: How decade-plus MLB megadeals suddenly became a thing 25d Alden Gonzalez and Jesse Rogers How long will the Padres' Big 4 stay together? 32d Alden Gonzalez 2 Related In that stretch, Ohtani put up a major-league-best 17.4 FanGraphs wins above replacement; only Judge (16.9) came close. But Ohtani's accomplishments extend far beyond his contemporaries; he's doing things unrivaled throughout baseball history, continually performing a two-way role at a level not even Babe Ruth could sustain. The 2021 and 2022 seasons saw Ohtani post a .918 OPS with 80 home runs and 37 stolen bases, and a 2.70 ERA with 375 strikeouts in 296 1/3 innings. He boasts prodigious power, blazing speed and a deep arsenal of devastating pitches, but he also possesses the acumen and the feel to translate it onto his sport's grandest stage -- and he's still young enough to project upside. Most of the industry's biggest contracts -- for Francisco Lindor , Fernando Tatis Jr., Bryce Harper , Giancarlo Stanton , Corey Seager , Trout, Betts, Devers and Machado -- were signed by players when they were 27 or younger. Ohtani will be slightly older, hitting the open market at 29 years old. In recent years, simply being under 30 has acted as a launching point for megadeals. But even that premise was shattered this offseason, with teams stretching deals to pay star players deep into their 30s and, in some cases, even into their 40s . Judge in particular attained a $360 million contract -- the third-largest guarantee and a record for a free agent -- as a 30-year-old entering his age-31 season. Judge received that deal, paid out over nine years, on the back of a historic season. Ohtani, if he continues at this rate, would be coming off three of them . He has a lot of wealthy suitors -- and not much competition in free agency Judge was the headliner of this year's free-agent class, but it was nonetheless a deep, star-studded crop, also featuring the likes of Trea Turner , Carlos Correa , Xander Bogaerts , Dansby Swanson , Carlos Rodon , Jacob deGrom and Justin Verlander . So, the premier slugger in the sport, four dynamic shortstops and three top-shelf starting pitchers. Next year's group, executives are quick to point out, probably won't be anywhere near as talented. The only players who are on track to become free agents and even approach that level, if you squint a little, are probably Matt Chapman , a third baseman; Josh Hader , a reliever; and a small handful of starting pitchers -- Yu Darvish , Lucas Giolito , Blake Snell , Julio Urias and the aforementioned Nola. The winter of the epic contract This offseason's four biggest free agents signed massive megadeals that are not only risky, but that started a historic hot stove trend. Why paying players in their 30s rarely works out » How decade-plus deals suddenly became a thing » The dynamic could change if Machado or Scherzer opts out. But Machado is widely expected to remain with the San Diego Padres , one way or another , and Scherzer would be a free agent again at the age of 39 -- and would be leaving a $43.3 million salary on the table in venturing into the open market. The gap between Ohtani and the next-best available player, people in the industry noted, might be seismic -- and the right teams might be extremely motivated to sign him. In conversations with rival agents and executives, one team is mentioned more often than any other: the Los Angeles Dodgers , who have been strongly linked to Ohtani for years and appeared to be positioning themselves for a major run at him this offseason, while passing on the best free agents in an effort to dip back under the luxury tax threshold and reset their penalties. But the New York Mets and the San Francisco Giants have been brought up by a handful of rival executives in recent days, in the wake of Correa's bizarre reunion with the Minnesota Twins . The Giants, who were ready to guarantee Correa $350 million over 13 years before becoming concerned about the long-term stability of his lower right leg, clearly desire a transcendent star and have shown the type of roster ingenuity that could make them an ideal fit for an unprecedented talent. The Mets, who had a 12-year, $315 million deal on the table for Correa before the same issue cropped up, employ the sport's richest and most aggressive owner, Steve Cohen. Billy Eppler, who originally recruited Ohtani to the Angels, is their general manager. "I can see both these teams jumping in," a longtime front-office executive said, "and that could really change the dynamic." They're far from alone. The Boston Red Sox should be clamoring for another superstar to pair with Devers after famously losing Bogaerts and Betts. The Seattle Mariners -- the team of one of Ohtani's key role models, Ichiro Suzuki -- have long been considered an ideal fit. The Chicago Cubs clearly are not done spending. The Angels, who might soon be under new ownership, would naturally want him back. And any number of other teams will surely jump at the chance to sign arguably the most unique talent in the sport's history. In the words of one agent: "Everybody will want him." Masterpress/Getty Images He's a worldwide sensation Ohtani is in many ways his own economy. A major Japanese broadcasting corporation, NHK, televises the vast majority of Ohtani's games in Japan and has four of its cameras permanently set up at Angel Stadium. NHK's rights deal is negotiated through Major League Baseball's international arm, which means the revenue gets split evenly among the 30 teams. But the Angels individually draw plenty of direct revenue from Ohtani, having signed a multitude of six-figure endorsement deals with Japanese brands since his first season in 2018 and continually benefiting from the popularity around his giveaways, a reality for any team that employs him. Get your favorite live sports, stories and originals with ESPN+, Disney+ and Hulu. Upgrade to a Disney Bundle plan and start streaming something for everyone today! The Angels had seven Ohtani-related promotions this past season. For their five major ones -- three bobbleheads, a cap and, yes, a snow globe -- they averaged more than 41,000 fans, with several thousands of them often waiting hours outside their ballpark for gates to open. The average was less than 30,000 for the 76 other home games. The exact figure is not known -- and the Angels won't provide one -- but Ohtani is said to annually generate somewhere in the low tens of millions of dollars in additional revenue for the team, a major reason he hasn't been traded in the lead-up to his free agency. Then there's all the indirect revenue his presence provides. People fly from Japan to watch his games, bringing additional traffic to local restaurants and hotels and, in Anaheim's case, theme parks. Upward of about 50 Japanese media members are credentialed to cover him on a full-time basis, promoting the Angels' brand to a nation of 125 million people. But Ohtani clearly also resonates within the United States, where he graced the covers of GQ, Time, Sports Illustrated and the MLB The Show video game over a recent six-month span. His jersey was the seventh-most purchased on MLB's official shop in 2022, even though the Angels -- a team that has missed the playoffs in eight consecutive seasons -- were hardly relevant. SponsorUnited, a sports-and-entertainment intelligence platform that tracks sponsorships throughout the world, reported that Ohtani accumulated 17 brand endorsements in 2022, breaking Judge's record of 13 in 2021 (among them: Asics, Hugo Boss, Fanatics, Seiko and Mitsubishi Bank). Ohtani also attracted 22 different Japanese brands to Angel Stadium, the company added. That, too, is considered a record. So might his next contract.