MLB Winter Meetings: Shohei Ohtani, Juan Soto and Yoshinobu Yamamoto among big storylines

The 2023 MLB Winter Meetings are set to get underway today in Nashville. Certainly the main headline is the status of free agent Shohei Ohtani, but his landing spot for next season is not the only major topic on the docket this week. Here are some of the other major storylines to keep an eye on as the 2023 Winter Meetings get underway.

MLB Draft Lottery

Last year saw the introduction of a new MLB Draft Lottery, under the league’s recently implemented Collective Bargaining Agreement. Designed to dissuade teams from tanking, the MLB Draft Lottery enters teams the non-playoff teams in a lottery which places the first six selections in the upcoming draft.

There are also restrictions one what teams can be in the lottery based on their revenue-sharing status. For example, the Washington Nationals finished with the fifth-worst record in baseball last year. But because the Nationals are one of the “payor” clubs — teams that give, rather than receive, revenue sharing dollars — they are ineligible for a lottery pick in two-straight seasons.

Washington had the second-overall pick a season ago.

Here are the odds for this year’s MLB Draft Lottery, which takes place this Tuesday at the Winter Meetings, along with each team’s winning percentage from last season:

18.3 percent — Athletics (.309)
18.3 — Royals (.346)
18.3 — Rockies (.364)
14.7 — White Sox (.377)
8.3 — Cardinals (.438)
6.1 — Angels (.451)
4.3 — Mets (.463)
3.0 — Pirates (.469)
2.0 — Guardians (.469)
1.6 — Tigers (.481)
1.2 — Red Sox (.481)
1.0 — Giants (.488)
0.9 — Reds (.506)
0.7 — Padres (.506)
0.6 — Yankees (.506)
0.4 — Cubs (.512)
0.2 — Mariners (.543)
0.0 — Nationals (.438)

What big market club — or clubs — will swing big?

As you can see from the above list … some big-market teams had underperformed last season. The New York Mets, the New York Yankees, and the Boston Red Sox are among those teams that struggled a year ago, but have the means to take a big swing — or swings — during this offseason.

Now those teams have some evidence that the payoff could be near-immediate.

After all, the Texas Rangers spent over $800 million in free agency over the past two offseasons. The result? A World Series title this past season.

As our own Demetrius Bell argued here, if the Rangers “bought” a World Series title, your team can too.

And those big-market teams that are coming off down seasons might be the ones to keep an eye on.

What surprise team — or teams — go big?

Given what we outlined above, we might see a few big-market teams splash the cash over the next few days.

But could a surprising mid-market team — or teams — go big as well?

Recent reporting indicates that one such team in this category is the Toronto Blue Jays. Toronto has emerged as a contender in the Ohtani sweepstakes, although there are some hurdles facing their push for the star player. As we will see in a moment, the Blue Jays have also been linked to another big name that could be on the move over the next few days.

However, the Blue Jays are not the only team in this category that could be aggressive this offseason. Two other teams to keep an eye on are the Cincinnati Reds and the Baltimore Orioles. Both teams have talented — and deep — farm systems that could see them make some aggressive moves this week.

While the Orioles are coming off a playoff appearance, Cincinnati’s postseason push fell short. Still, both teams could decide to move some pieces to bolster their rosters heading into next year. Baltimore needs pitching, and a closer now that Félix Bautista just underwent Tommy John surgery. In a similar vein, the Reds would love to bolster their rotation. We’ll see just how aggressive those two organizations want to be.

Another team to keep an eye on? The Miami Marlins. Incoming President of Baseball Operations Peter Bendix comes over from the Tampa Bay Rays, and there are expectations that Bendix, in charge of a roster that made a surprising run to the postseason, will be aggressive over the coming weeks.

Will Juan Soto be traded?

Splashing money around in free agency is one way of adding to a roster.

Good, old-fashioned trades are another.

In the summer of 2022, the San Diego Padres pay a steep price to acquire Juan Soto from the Washington Nationals, sending then-rookies CJ Abrams and MacKenzie Gore to Washington, along with prospects Robert Hassell III, James Wood, Jarlin Susana, and veteran slugger Luke Voit.

The move helped the Padres advance to the postseason, but they eventually came up short, losing to the Philadelphia Phillies in the NLCS.

However, last season the Padres came back to Earth, finishing third in the NL West with an 82-80 record. Soto did his part, putting a .275/.410/.519 slash line along with 35 home runs, but now San Diego is facing some tough decisions.

According to reporting from The Athletic, the Padres needed to take out a short-term loan to meet payroll at the end of the season, and the organization is facing a big budget crunch. When you consider that, the fact that Soto is on his final year before free agency, and that the Padres have a number of issues to address on the roster, trading one of baseball’s best hitters might be their best course of action.

Who might make a play for Soto? Well one of those teams above, the Yankees, tops the list. New York is already in discussions with San Diego on a potential deal, however, according to at least one report such talks have stalled in recent days. The Blue Jays, who as we outlined here are in on the Ohtani sweepstakes, are another potential suitor.

So while Ohtani’s free agency is one big storyline, a potential Soto blockbuster could be another.

How will the pitching market play out?

The old adages of “you can never have enough good pitching” and “good pitching beats good hitting” were tested a bit last season, as a number of teams mashed their way into the postseason.

Still, there are a number of teams that believe they can be contenders next year, provided they put together the right rotations.

The problem? Good arms might be tough to find this offseason.

Consider this: On this list of the best free agents available this winter from USA Today, just 19 are starting pitchers. And that includes Ohtani, who will be taking a year off from pitching due to the UCL injury he suffered at the end of last season.

Of course, the next few days might see some pitchers moved via trade, but the competition for starting pitchers might be fierce in Nashville this week.

Who signs Yoshinobu Yamamoto?

Another pitcher listed on the above-referenced list?

Yoshinobu Yamamoto.

The right-hander went 16-6 with a 1.21 ERA, and a 0.884 WHIP, in 23 appearances during the 2023 Nippon Professional Baseball season. Yamamoto also struck out 169 batters and walked just 28 batters over 164 innings of work. That saw Yamamoto earn his third-straight MVP award, joining Ichiro Suzuki and Hisashi Yamada as the only players to secure such honors three times in a row.

And, given Ohtani’s UCL injury, many consider Yamamoto the best free agent pitching option available.

The righty has four devastating pitches: A fastball, a curveball, a splitter, and a cutter, and thanks to his appearance at the World Baseball Classic last season, we now have data on just how tough those four pitches can be. The fastball sits in the mid-90s, and during the WBC topped out at 97 mph.

Like Ohtani and many other Japanese pitchers, Yamamoto features a tough splitter, one that can break into the 90s but also features more than 30 inches of vertical drop. Of his 11 strikeouts in the WBC, seven came on splitters (the other four came on fastballs). More than half of the swinging strikes he induced in the WBC came on this pitch.

Here’s a look at it:

Yeah. Good luck.

Yamamoto also features a cutter, but his best pitch might be his curveball. It is similar in many ways to what we see from Clayton Kershaw, a pitch with a lot of vertical drop and break to it:

Yamamoto also uses a unique grip, called the “Ginoza,” that sees him place his thumb upward as he releases the pitch:

Here is a deeper dive into that pitch:

Early indications are that the price tag for his services will be north of $200 million, with some expectations that he could sign a deal putting him behind only Gerrit Cole in the starting pitching contract market. As you might expect, big-spending clubs like the Yankees and the Mets are in the mix for Yamamoto, but other competitors reportedly include the Dodgers, the Red Sox, the Diamondbacks, the Giants, and the Phillies.

Wherever he lands, you will want to be watching next season.

Hall of Fame voting kicks things off

While player movement is the focus this week, the MLB Winter Meetings kick off with a meeting of the Contemporary Era Committee to determine if any of the eight nominees for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame from the Contemporary Baseball Era Managers/Executives/Umpires ballot will be enshrined in Cooperstown.

The eight nominees this year are:

Cito Gaston (manager)
Davey Johnson (manager)
Jim Leyland (manager)
Ed Montague (umpire)
Hank Peters (executive)
Lou Piniella (manager)
Joe West (umpire)
Bill White (executive)

The members of the Committee will cast their final ballots on Sunday, and the results will be announced Sunday night at 7:30 p.m. ET on MLB Network’s “MLB Live.”

And yes, there is still the Ohtani matter

Of course, this is the storyline that will dominate the entire week.

Where will Shohei Ohtani be playing baseball next season.

We walked through the main contenders earlier this week, and consensus going into the MLB Winter Meetings remains that the Dodgers are the favorites. They remain so at DraftKings Sportsbook.

But until ink is put to paper, anything can happen.