TEMPE, Ariz. — For the Los Angeles Angels’ pitchers and catchers, spring training officially started at the team’s training facility on Wednesday. But for the team’s two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani, who has been hitting and throwing in Arizona all month, the preparations for the most important year of his career began long ago.
In two weeks, Ohtani will leave Angels camp to join Team Japan for the World Baseball Classic, which is returning for the first time since 2017 following a pandemic-induced delay. And no matter where he goes in the world, Ohtani, 28, is followed by a cloud of intrigue — even larger than the one that has trailed him throughout his career.
After this season, Ohtani, a unicorn in the sport given his standout abilities as both a pitcher and hitter, will be among the most coveted free agents in baseball history. So as Ohtani, the winner of the 2021 American League Most Valuable Player Award, began what may be his final spring training in an Angels uniform, he answered questions on Thursday about his future but provided little insight during a 30-minute news conference in English and Japanese.
“This is my last year and I’m aware of that,” Ohtani said through his interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara. “As of now, I’m an Angel and that’s all I’m going to focus on. I haven’t really thought too far ahead.”
That was what Ohtani answered when asked if he was open to a contract extension to stay in Anaheim, Calif. While Ohtani didn’t say no, he also didn’t say yes. Based on the Angels’ recent checkered past and playoff drought, few would begrudge Ohtani if he was looking forward to hearing pitches from other teams with brighter futures.
Despite having two of the best players in baseball — outfielder Mike Trout, a three-time A.L. M.V.P., and Ohtani — together for the past five seasons, the Angels have not posted a winning season since 2015. The last time the Angels reached the postseason was in 2014, when the Kansas City Royals swept them in an A.L. division series.
The frustration of perennial losing has worn on many, particularly Ohtani. He was the runner-up for the 2022 A.L. M.V.P. Award after hitting 34 home runs and posting a 2.33 E.R.A. over 166 innings, but he admitted that remaining motivated was hard when the Angels fired Manager Joe Maddon in June, lost a franchise-record 14 straight games at one point and finished 73-89.
“I really like the team,” Ohtani said in September 2021 about his future, which has been a constant question during his time in Anaheim. “I love the fans. I love the atmosphere of the team. But more than that, I want to win. That’s the biggest thing for me. So I’ll leave it at that.”
This off-season, the Angels spent $78 million on free agents, headlined by the left-handed starting pitcher Tyler Anderson (three years, $39 million) and the utility man Brandon Drury (two years, $17 million). They traded for infielder Gio Urshela and outfielder Hunter Renfroe. With a franchise record $216 million payroll (for luxury tax purposes in 2023), the Angels rank ninth in spending in Major League Baseball, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts.
“We got a great group with new guys, probably the best acquisitions in the past few years,” Ohtani said. “I got to see a couple of the guys today. Looking forward to getting to know them better and excited to play with them.”
On paper, the Angels addressed some holes in their top-heavy roster despite the uncertainty present atop their organization throughout the winter. In August, the team’s owner, Arte Moreno, announced that he would look into selling the team. But in late January he said he had changed his mind and was keeping the team.
At a news conference in Arizona this week, M.L.B. Commissioner Rob Manfred called Moreno “a valued member of the ownership group” and cited Moreno’s track record of spending and drawing over three million fans per season. But attendance at Angels home games fell to 2.4 million last season from just over three million in 2019, and the Angels have been connected to several lawsuits, controversies or investigations in recent seasons.
“There’s a lot of success that had been there and I think a lot of the sort of negativity recently was a reflection back on the Angels, not a product of them doing anything inappropriate or improper,” Manfred said. “He had bidders but had the option and made the decision to hold the club, and I think that’s a good thing.”
Ohtani — who will earn $30 million this season, the largest one-year contract ever given to an arbitration-eligible player — said he caught up briefly with Moreno on Wednesday at the Angels’ spring training complex. He said there were “no deep conversations” about his future. Ohtani added about Moreno remaining the owner, “It’s business as usual. Nothing has really changed so I just want to focus on this season and focus on winning a championship.”
Although Angels General Manager Perry Minasian has repeatedly said he wants Ohtani to remain in Anaheim beyond 2023 and believes Moreno will try to make that happen, Ohtani said on Thursday he had not heard anything about contract extensions.
“I do firmly believe that the Angels are on the same page as me that they want to win just as much as I do,” said Ohtani, who was named the Angels’ opening day starting pitcher. “But I can’t really tell you what they really are thinking but I would like to believe that.”
Some baseball observers have wondered whether Ohtani, who signed as a free agent with the Angels in 2017 after a professional career in Japan, could command a new contract worth as much as $500 million.
“I’m going to do whatever I can to keep Shohei here, for sure,” Trout, who signed a 12-year, $426.5 million contract extension with the Angels in 2019, told reporters on Wednesday. “We’re going to go out there and try to win. I haven’t really talked to Shohei about his future, but it seems like he’s having a good time here. But it’s been six years together and we haven’t been in the playoffs, so if there’s any year we need to get the playoffs, it’s this year.”
Angels Manager Phil Nevin said his conversations with Ohtani always revolve on how he can improve and thus help the team win. He called Ohtani the mentally toughest player he has ever been around, given the demands of excelling on the mound and at the plate. Although some players might be distracted during their walk seasons, Nevin said he had no such fears about Ohtani.
“Has it been frustrating for him not to win?” Nevin said. “It’s been frustrating for everybody certainly. But we’re here, it’s exciting and it’s the first day and we understand what’s ahead of us and a great opportunity.”