Ohtani the St. Louisan?
Now, let's speculate. Obviously, if Ohtani doesn’t want to play in St. Louis, then the Cardinals have no shot of landing him in free agency. It’s been long reported that Ohtani prefers the West Coast as it’s closer to Japan, and while that is likely true it shouldn’t rule out the possibility he lands elsewhere. Prior to joining the Angels in 2017, Shohei’s shortlist of teams also included the Dodgers, Giants, Padres, Mariners, Rangers, and Cubs with the Rangers and Cubs notably being midwestern teams just like the Cardinals. Other skeptics have also wondered, like Kris Bryant, “Who would want to play in St. Louis?” Those who make this argument, however, have no understanding of Ohtani and his true desire: winning a championship.
Sure, St. Louis isn’t the most exciting city in the world, but for Shohei Ohtani, that shouldn’t be an issue. While playing for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters of NPB, Ohtani voluntarily lived in the team’s dormitories where he was only ever allowed to leave with permission from his manager and coaches despite being one of the most well-recognized superstars in Japan. He also stated that getting a driver's license in Japan was too much effort as he only wanted to go to and from the stadium anyway. When the Angels were in St. Louis in May, when Samurai Japan teammate Lars Nootbaar invited Ohtani to lunch, Ohtani declined as he was sleeping to recover for his upcoming start. Evidently, Ohtani’s sole commitment is to winning baseball games, and the location of the team he plays for shouldn’t play a role in where he signs.
For winning baseball, is there really a better place than St. Louis? Aside from the abysmal 2023, the Cardinals have been a model organization that’s in contention nearly every season and has a long-running tradition of championship success. Other than the Yankees, no other team has been as successful as the Cardinals at winning championships. The roster construction for 2024, assuming the Cardinals fulfill their commitment to adding pitchers in the offseason, also points to this winning trend continuing into the future.
Ohtani is certainly no stranger to members of the Cardinals organization. As mentioned earlier, he and Lars Nootbaar became close friends during the 2023 World Baseball Classic. In May, Nootbaar wrote in a piece for the Players' Tribune stating, “I wouldn’t trade playing in St. Louis for anything.” In addition to Nootbaar, Ohtani is also close to Cardinals legend and former Angels teammate Albert Pujols.
After being released by the Angels in 2021, Pujols called Ohtani during the Home Run Derby to provide him with words of wisdom. The two were also seen hugging and catching up at the 2022 All-Star Game. Pujols’ love for the Cardinals organization speaks for itself, and it’s no secret how much he preferred the winning culture in St. Louis compared to Anaheim. Ohtani himself had a front-row seat in 2019 when Albert clubbed a homer at Busch Stadium during his first trip back, receiving a thunderous curtain call as a visiting player.
Ohtani has played coy with the media when asked where he’d be interested in signing, so this is all merely speculation. There could be some unknown reason Ohtani dislikes the Cardinals, but we’ll never know if that's the case. If all Shohei wants a winning organization, however, St. Louis should be near the top of his list as a potential suitor.
So what now?
No, it's not happening. Like with Bryce Harper, the Cardinals are not interested in signing Shohei Ohtani this offseason. But, they're making a huge mistake. As we've established, Ohtani would be a perfect fit in St. Louis. The already potent lineup would become otherworldly with his threatening bat in the heart of the order. The disastrous pitching rotation could still be patched in 2024 with the team's remaining assets, and once Ohtani returns in 2025 it would instantly become elite. Moreover, millions of Japanese baseball fans would instantly become Cardinals fans. It would be Bill DeWitt's dream.
Unfortunately, for a front office that’s notoriously risk averse, they will not go down this route. However, if the Cardinals have learned anything from their failures in 2023 it’s that their old philosophies may no longer work. If there’s any year to take a big risk on one player this is the year. Even calling Shohei Ohtani a once-in-a-generation player is disingenuous. We’ve never seen anybody do what he’s capable of. Not even Babe Ruth. We may never see this again.
The Cardinals need to offer Shohei Ohtani a competitive contract. He might not accept it. He might sign with a team he prefers more, and that’s fine. There will be multiple suitors in line offering similar deals, and for Ohtani, it’s never been about the money. Sadly, they just won't do it. Perhaps in five years, after another early Postseason exit, the Cardinals will watch Shohei Ohtani the Seattle Mariner hitting clutch home runs, headlining a top-tier pitching staff and wonder why they didn't sign him for such a bargain. Maybe then they'll finally learn from their mistakes.