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How might Shohei Ohtani’s injury affect his free agency this winter?

With Ohtani’s future — on the mound, at least — very much in doubt, we break down how his latest injury could affect what had been shaping up to be an unprecedented market.

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Los Angeles Angels designated hitter Shohei Ohtani returns to the dugout after hitting a pop fly ball during the first inning at Angel Stadium.  Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The baseball world got some awful news late Wednesday night, as Los Angeles Angels GM Perry Minasian announced that two-way star Shohei Ohtani — who’d been pulled from a start yet again earlier that afternoon — had suffered a tear in the UCL in his right elbow.

It’s unclear as of yet whether Ohtani will need surgery to repair the tear, or whether he might be able to pitch through it. All we know for now is that he won’t be pitching again this season and that he intends to try and serve as the team’s DH for the final few weeks — he was in the lineup for the nightcap of the Angels’ doubleheader against the Reds on Wednesday, just hours after learning of his diagnosis, as yet another reminder that he is in fact built different.

There are so many ramifications of this news to address, foremost among them what it means for the future of the most unprecedented player in the history of the sport. But, with L.A.’s Wild Card hopes more or less flatlining — the Angels sit 10.5 games back of the Mariners entering play on Thursday — it’s also time to start turning our attention to Ohtani’s impending free agency. One of the game’s best hitters and best pitchers all rolled into one, the 29-year-old figured to be headed for a historic payday this winter, with contract estimates coming in at $500 million or higher.

Now, though, all of that has been thrown into question. Don’t get it twisted: Ohtani is still lined up for a record-setting payday. Just as a hitter, he’s become one of the sport’s most feared players, currently leading the league in OPS (1.069) and home runs (44) to go along with 17 stolen bases. That player would command a deal well into nine figures, even if he’d never thrown a pitch in his life. But Ohtani is such a unicorn because he can pitch, and very, very well: He wasn’t just leading the league in OPS, he was also leading the league in OPS+ and opponents’ batting average. Since the start of the 2018 season, only seven pitchers with at least 480 innings of work have an ERA lower than Ohtani’s 3.01 mark.

So, how might this injury affect how the next few months play out — and which team ultimately lands Ohtani? Here’s what you need to know.

Shohei Ohtani free agency: How injury could impact his market

Everything hinges on one question: Will Ohtani need surgery, and if so, when? It’s possible that it’s just a partial tear, and that Ohtani can continue to pitch through it — much likely countryman Masahiro Tanaka did for years. If Ohtani does need to undergo Tommy John for a second time, though, that will undoubtedly give teams at least some pause in handing him a blank check this winter. The rehab data we have suggests that the road back from a second TJ surgery isn’t as smooth as the first.

But there’s an argument to be made that surgery is both the best thing for Ohtani’s long-term health and his financial future. You just have to look at the situation involving Phillies prospect Andrew Painter this year to see how delaying elbow surgery can backfire; if Ohtani goes under the knife now, he can sell teams on being an elite hitter in 2024 — the first time he underwent Tommy John, he posted a .848 OPS over 109 games despite not being able to take the mound — and returning as a two-way force starting in 2025.

Regardless of which option he chooses, there are still plenty of reasons for just about every team to want to spend big on Ohtani this winter. The first, as covered above, is that he’s already proven that he can remain a middle-of-the-order bat (with real stolen-base ability, too) no matter what the status of his elbow is. The second is simple: marketing. Ohtani has become arguably the biggest name in the sport this season — really, the only other player who comes close is Aaron Judge, and Judge doesn’t come with a whole other baseball-mad country following his every move. In addition to packed crowds every homestand, the Angels have reaped the benefits of massive sponsorships from Japanese companies who know that there are plenty of eyes on him across the Pacific. That is additional revenue Ohtani would bring to a team that other free agents simply can’t touch, and it’s not hard to see an owner like Hal Steinbrenner or Steve Cohen being swayed by the economic argument.

At the end of the day, the most likely scenario is that Ohtani still gets a hefty, even historic, contract — but it likely won’t be entirely guaranteed. A team could draw up a dollar value for Ohtani as a hitter — Trea Turner just got nearly $30 million a year from Philadelphia — and then tack on a pitching portion that’s loaded with innings incentives. Or Ohtani could opt for a short-term deal, betting on himself and waiting until he’s once again fully healthy to look for his massive payday. Ohtani has played this whole process relatively close to the vest; beyond the fact that he’s desperate to finally reach the postseason, there’s still so much we don’t know about what he’ll prioritize during this process. The only thing we know for sure is that baseball is so, so much more fun with its unicorn at full power, and we hope he’s back on the mound as soon as possible.