Barring a long-term extension in spring training, Shohei Ohtani's future will loom large over the Los Angeles Angels season.
His agent, Nez Balelo, made clear Monday what the absence of a deal might mean.
“There’s several layers to this one, and Shohei’s earned the right to play through the year, explore free agency, and we’ll see where it shakes out," Balelo told reporters, per the Orange County Register.
Balelo, who works for CAA Sports, was speaking from Angels spring training in Tempe, Arizona. Per the Register, he spent part of the day talking with general manager Perry Minasian prior to answering reporters' questions. Balelo didn't rule out negotiating a deal during the regular season but noted that typically "doesn't happen."
“It’s a fine line when you ask a player to go through that during the season,” Balelo said. “Typically it doesn’t happen. I would just say it’s tough to be able to have a discussion that will be so meaningful during the season. It probably makes more sense to table it until the end of the season.”
Balelo's statement wasn't a deadline to get a deal done. It also didn't portend Ohtani's exit from the franchise in the absence of a preseason extension. But he put words to what has long been assumed: Ohtani exploring free agency next offseason is very much on the table.
A two-way superstar who won AL MVP in 2021, Ohtani enters the 2023 season on a one-year, $30 million contract. He signed the deal in October as the largest ever single-season contract for an arbitration-eligible player. There will be no arbitration next winter. If Ohtani doesn't have a deal by then, he'll be free to negotiate with whomever he likes.
Ohtani declined to tip has hand on the subject when speaking to reporters through his interpreter Thursday.
"I haven’t really heard anything about an extension," he said. “I’m just trying to focus on the season. ... As of now, I’m an Angel, and that’s all I want to focus on."
Minasian likewise declined to take a public stance on negotiations while speaking with reporters earlier in February, before the team left Anaheim for Tempe.
“Obviously, we love Shohei Ohtani,” Minasian said Feb. 4, per the Register. “I believe that all of us, this whole organization, would like nothing more than to see him here for a long, long time. That being said, the same line I always use and you guys know and probably roll your eyes at: I don’t negotiate publicly."
Ohtani's future with the franchise isn't the only long-term question hanging over the Angels. Five months after announcing he was exploring a sale of the franchise, team owner Arte Moreno said in January that the team is not for sale.
Moreno, 76, has a 20-year tenure as the Angels owner that has produced six playoff berths and zero World Series appearances. The past five seasons have seen the Angels fail to build a postseason team around a pair of generational talents in Ohtani and three-time MVP Mike Trout.
Ohtani, 28, has previously expressed his desire to play for a winner.
“I really like the team. I love the fans," Ohtani said through his interpreter in 2021. "I love the atmosphere of the team.
"But more than that, I want to win. That’s the biggest thing for me. I’ll leave it at that.”
The Angels face a tall task if they want to retain Ohtani, and coming up with the right offer is only part of the challenge. They also need to convince him that they can win.