LOS ANGELES — In late 1980, free-agent slugger Dave Winfield signed a 10-year deal with the New York Yankees worth a whopping $23 million. At the time, it was the richest contract in professional sports history, but now, it seems like pocket change compared to the enormous free-agent contracts we see for even non-superstar Major League Baseball players.
In fact, MLB contracts have ballooned so much in the past forty-plus years—and particularly during this current offseason—that we're now discussing who will get baseball's first $500 million contract.
As articulated in a report from ESPN's Alden Gonzalez, most baseball pundits and executives would agree that if anyone could be the one to do it, it would be Shohei Ohtani of the Anaheim Angels, who is one of baseball’s only two-way players. But it’s not only because he can hit and pitch; it’s because Ohtani does both exceptionally well. He’s above-average in both positions, batting .273/.356/.519 in 2022 with 34 home runs while also pitching to a 2.73 ERA, striking out 219 in 166 innings, and finishing fourth in the 2022 AL Cy Young vote.
Ohtani is truly a marvel, and watching him play is no longer a novelty. He’s the real deal. Ohtani is the type of player who makes fans want to attend a baseball game and not just catch them on TV or their tablets.
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Of course, this speculation about big money deals comes with a few caveats.
The main one for Shohei Ohtani is: Can he stay healthy? Because while Ohtani has been incredible to watch the past two seasons, he had some health issues before 2021, and his injuries in 2018-2020 prevented him from showing off his true power and potential.
Ohtani was limited to only 12 games on the pitching side, and in those three seasons, his total home run mark was only 47.
So will those past injuries prevent Ohtani from becoming the first $500 million player? Perhaps.
But it’s also possible that an MLB team may say, “Who cares! He’ll bring crowds to the seats. Let’s pay him whatever he wants.” And past health problems certainly didn’t stop Ohtani’s current team from signing his teammate Mike Trout to a 12-year/$426.5 million deal in 2019 that won’t end until after the 2030 season. So there’s recent history and precedent to prove that it could happen for Ohtani.
There’s also the time aspect of those long-term deals. Along with Trout’s 12-year deal a few years back, this offseason has seen several players sign contracts that are over ten years in length. Rafael Devers, Xander Boagerts, and Trea Turner all signed 11-year deals from the Red Sox, Padres, and Phillies, respectively. And Ohtani has time on his side as he is only 28 and will still be on the right side of 30 when the 2023 season ends.
Another thing that may work in Ohtani’s favor is that he already has the largest salary ever earned by an arbitration-eligible player, $30 million in 2023. So a combination of the results in his past two seasons and how he performs in 2023 could make him the first $500 million player in Major League Baseball. And who knows? Maybe next year, at this time, you could be reading about how Shohei Ohtani has earned the richest contract in professional sports history.