Waiting game: Why the Dodgers' winter plans hinge on Shohei Ohtani, Yoshinobu Yamamoto

About a month into free agency, a de facto waiting game is underway — for both the Dodgers, and many other clubs around Major League Baseball.

In what has been a quiet offseason around the league, the Dodgers have been no exception; yet to orchestrate much of a ripple, let alone any discernible splash.

Instead, with the winter meetings approaching next week, the team appears to be waiting for this offseason’s two biggest dominoes to fall first, anxious to learn their fate in the sweepstakes for Shohei Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto before making any other major moves.

“Right now, things are building momentum in a lot of different areas,” president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman told reporters Friday, three days before MLB’s winter meetings open in Nashville on Monday. “Whether that means a lot of things will get done during these three days in Nashville or not, I’m not sure. But I do feel like a lot of things are starting to come to a head.”

Friedman on Friday offered few specifics into the Dodgers’ winter plans — which, to this point, have included only an extension for Max Muncy, the re-signing of Jason Heyward (whose $9 million contract remains the biggest signed by a free agent so far this winter) and the minor addition of reliever Ricky Vanasco.

However, according to multiple people with knowledge of the team’s plans who were unauthorized to speak publicly and granted anonymity, the Dodgers are still among the top contenders for this offseason’s pair of Japanese stars.

And only once those players are off the board will the Dodgers likely decide how to proceed through the rest of the winter.

“There is something about the 24/7 focus on transactions during those three days … that we feel like there’s going to be a number of things that could line up for us, but not clear exactly when,” said Friedman, who didn’t discuss any free agents or trade targets individually.

As expected, little public information has emerged about either the notoriously secretive Ohtani or his soon-to-be-MLB peer in Yamamoto, a right-handed starting pitcher coming to MLB from Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league.

The expectation has been that Ohtani will sign sometime around the winter meetings (which conclude next Thursday), if not soon after. Yamamoto has until Jan. 4 to strike a deal with an MLB club after being posted by his NPB team last month, and could reportedly wait until after the winter meetings to narrow his decision.

Both players would represent a major splash for the Dodgers.

Ohtani won’t be able to pitch again until 2025 after undergoing Tommy John surgery near the end of last season, but the two-way star would still bring his elite bat to a lineup that already featured MVP finalists this past season in Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman.

Yamamoto is more of an unknown, having spent his first seven professional seasons in Japan’s pitcher-friendly domestic league. Still, in a decorated NPB career, the 25-year-old was a three-time winner of both the league’s MVP and Cy Young Award equivalent. Along with Ohtani, Yamamoto was also part of Japan’s tournament-winning World Baseball Classic team last spring.

As expected, both players are attracting heavy interest from around the league. Yamamoto, who is also reportedly a top target for the New York Yankees, as well as several other contenders, has been widely projected for a potential $200-plus million contract (which would also warrant a $30-plus million posting fee to his NPB team).

Ohtani is in line for an MLB record-breaking deal in the $450 million-$500 million range, if not more. The Angels, Chicago Cubs and Toronto Blue Jays are all believed to still be in the running. Other big-market clubs such as the San Francisco Giants, New York Mets, Boston Red Sox and Texas Rangers have also been linked to Ohtani — though ESPN reported Friday morning the latter three might be turning their attention elsewhere.

Such lofty contract figures would usually spell trouble for the fiscally conscientious Dodgers, who despite carrying some of MLB’s biggest payrolls the last decade have never committed more than $162 million to any free agent under Friedman or the Mark Walter-led Guggenheim ownership group (Betts got his $365 million deal following an offseason trade in 2020).

Nonetheless, the team’s need for a major addition — especially in the wake of their latest postseason disappointment — could prompt the club into an unprecedented spending spree.

And, even if they get outbid by rival clubs for either player, there is a belief they could woo Ohtani and Yamamoto to Los Angeles in other ways as well.

With Ohtani, the Dodgers remain hopeful that their Southern California locale, annual ability to contend for World Series, and lengthy track record of working with rehabbing pitchers can convince the former Angels star that a crosstown move is best for both his short- and long-term future.

If Ohtani is seeking a shorter-term deal with higher annual salaries and/or potential opt-outs, the Dodgers could also get creative with the potential contract structures they present to the 29-year-old slugger — an approach they’ve used before with top-of-the-market free-agent targets.

Yamamoto, meanwhile, is believed to have followed the Dodgers closely as a young player. He could also prefer playing for a West Coast contender. Most of all, he would address their most pressing need: adding a highly touted frontline pitcher to the top of their youthful 2024 rotation.

Like Ohtani, Yamamoto also comes with risks. Listed at just 5-foot-10, he is undersized compared to most star MLB pitchers. Though he has a deep arsenal of pitches, there is some question about whether his skill set will make him a bona fide ace against MLB opposition.

And while, given his age, some teams see Yamamoto as a more attractive candidate for a long-term offer, the right-hander lacks the MLB track record of this year’s other top free agent pitchers, including Blake Snell, Jordan Montgomery and Aaron Nola.

In a reminder of this year’s pricey pitching market, Nola became the first big name to come off the board last week, when he reportedly turned down bigger offers elsewhere to re-sign with the Phillies for seven years and $172 million.

The Dodgers were one of the other teams involved in negotiations with Nola, who was seen as perhaps the most dependable pitcher of this year’s free-agent class. However, according to people with knowledge of the situation, they weren’t among his top bidders in the end, showing the kind of big-money restraint that has squashed many of their past open-market pursuits.

If the Dodgers miss out on both Ohtani and Yamamoto — which remains a very real possibility, given the vast number of interested teams in both players — it remains to be seen how aggressively they will pursue other alternatives.

Snell, who is coming off his second Cy Young Award, has arguably the highest ceiling of any of this year’s free-agent pitchers. However, as a 30-year-old left-hander who has also been prone to inconsistency during his eight-year career, his projected $200-plus million price tag could surpass what the Dodgers are willing to spend.

The same likely goes for Montgomery, another 30-year-old veteran projected for a contract well into the nine-figure range.

There are other free agent options that could help round out the Dodgers rotation.

Lucas Giolito has emerged as one of the Dodgers’ targets, according to people with knowledge of the situation unauthorized to speak publicly. Jack Flaherty and Seth Lugo have also been linked with the team of late, while other veterans such as Michael Wacha and Marcus Stroman could also bolster the club’s pitching depth.

For now, though, the Dodgers will probably wait and see what comes of their Ohtani and Yamamoto pursuits first, before making decisions about further down the free-agent board.

Regardless of whether they land Ohtani and/or Yamamoto, the Dodgers will explore the trade market in search of other moves this winter.

They have been one of several teams in discussions with the Chicago White Sox for Dylan Cease, according to a person with knowledge of the situation but unauthorized to speak publicly, but haven’t yet approached Chicago’s asking price for the 2022 AL Cy Young runner-up.

The Dodgers would also likely make a run at Corbin Burnes if the Milwaukee Brewers decide to deal the former Cy Young winner ahead of his contract year, though it remains unclear whether the Brewers will do so this winter. Tyler Glasnow of the Tampa Bay Rays and Shane Bieber of the Cleveland Guardians have also received speculation as potential trade pieces this winter.

Offensively, there are other options beyond Ohtani that the Dodgers are evaluating.

The team has shown interest in one of this winter’s top free agent outfielders, Teoscar Hernández. They could also scour the trade market for another bat, perhaps even an infielder such as the Brewers’ Willy Adames, another player entering a contract year that the Dodgers are believed to have interest in.

After all, if Ohtani signs elsewhere, the Dodgers will still have openings at designated hitter, in the corner outfield and on their bench to address — and only unproven prospects like Miguel Vargas, Michael Busch and Jonny DeLuca as current in-house candidates to fill them.

For now, though, the waiting game for Ohtani and Yamamoto continues to drag on.

If the Dodgers ink either (or both) of them, it would represent a major coup around which the rest of their winter plans could revolve.

Miss out on both, and the team could be left with a tricky decision: Pivot to another big-name acquisition (either through free agency or a trade), or risk enduring a second straight offseason that lacks a high-profile addition.

Entering the winter meetings, all of those scenarios are seemingly still in play. And after a quiet opening month this winter, it might not be long before the dominoes start falling.

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