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Thursday, February 29, 2024

Shohei Ohtani leads the 50 most interesting people in baseball

The most interesting player in the majors is, for 2024, a $2 million designated hitter.

Packaging is everything. Narrowing in on Shohei Ohtani for just this season — and the nine thereafter — $68 million of his $70 million annual salary is deferred. And while he recovers from elbow surgery, Ohtani will be limited to just being a DH in 2024. So his take-home pay to just hit this year is $2 million.

Yet, his star has never been larger. Because the whole contract is for $700 million — and multiple teams were willing to pay that. Because the Dodgers believe he will return as a two-way player in 2025. He went a short distance, roughly 32 miles, from Angel Stadium to Dodger Stadium. Yet, he has come so far.

He went from an Angels team that is tied with the Tigers for longest MLB playoff drought (since 2014) and with limited promise of that changing soon to a Dodgers squad that has made the playoffs the past 11 seasons. His chance of being on the October stage as the biggest star on a Hollywood (not an Anaheim) club feels all but guaranteed. Ohtani was the linchpin of the Dodgers’ billion-dollar-plus in contract investment this offseason that leaves them as the biggest story in the sport with the biggest target as every David tries to take down this Goliath.

Ohtani became the first player to ever win two MVPs unanimously last year. Without the burden of also having to pitch in 2024 — assuming that his right elbow is healthy — what is possible hitting behind Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman? Fifty homers? Sixty? Thirty steals? Forty? Since his batting average the last four seasons has gone from .190 to .257 to .273 to .304, is a Triple Crown out of the question?

Shoehi Ohtani AP

It will be hard to take our eyes off the $2 million DH, which is why after finishing No. 1 last year in our annual list of the 50 Most Interesting People in Baseball when there was so much anticipation of the most historic free agency in MLB history, he is No. 1 again. The rest of the list:

2. Yoshinobu Yamamoto

Dodgers pitcher (2023 rank: 13)

A player who has never lifted his arm in a major league game is the highest-paid pitcher in MLB history. The fervor for an age-25 player with Yamamoto’s arsenal and track record (three-time winner of Japan’s Cy Young) created a furor that led to both the Dodgers and Mets offering Yamamoto $1 million more than Gerrit Cole’s $324 million over 12 years. It was an LA kind of offseason, though. Now we get to see if the feeding frenzy was worth it as we see how the freakish athleticism, deep arsenal and pinpoint control translate to MLB.

Dodgers pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

3. Juan Soto

Yankees OF (NR)

The Yankees gave up their pitching depth to try to fix their offense. They figured they could sign a Marcus Stroman here and a Luke Weaver there to try to restock arms — especially when their plans for a Yama-Soto offseason evaporated. But no one else available could reanimate the lineup like Soto, who through his age-24 season stands with the greatest offensive performers in history. He is under control to the Yankees for one season. His audition is on to see if he can assure a $500 million-plus contract next offseason and to see if the Yankees feel obligated to give him what he wants.

4. Craig Counsell

Cubs manager (NR)

Like Ohtani, he did not move physically far, about 90 miles on I-94 from American Family Field to Wrigley Field while staying in the NL Central. But like Ohtani, he is in a different stratosphere — in pay, attention and pressure. Counsell left his literal home and where his father once worked (for the Brewers) and where (until this offseason) he was a civic hero to accept a managerial record five-year, $40 million contract to see if he can restore relevance (and the playoffs) to the Cubs. His new team plays a four-game series in Milwaukee from May 27-30 — Counsell should not expect a hero’s welcome.

Craig Counsell AP

5. Pete Alonso

Mets 1B (NR)

Hovering over this season is what the Mets will do with their star first baseman. Play it out and let him go? Trade him in July? Sign him long-term? Alonso is in a similar situation as Aaron Judge was entering 2022 — the popular, homegrown slugger entering his walk year with a New York team. Judge responded with 62 homers that forced Hal Steinbrenner to pay more than he had envisioned. Will Alonso similarly pressure Steve Cohen?

6. Scott Boras

Agent (NR)

The four biggest free agents left as spring training neared were his clients — Cody Bellinger, Matt Chapman, Jordan Montgomery and Blake Snell (also J.D. Martinez and Hyun-jin Ryu). It was the main MLB intrigue late in the offseason — did he and his clients overshoot their value or will they still all land big deals? Boras actually got one of his main looming free agents, Jose Altuve, re-signed in Houston (no surprise since the second baseman never wanted to leave) before any of his big guys this offseason. But Boras is also on this list because he will be such a key figure next offseason with Alonso, Soto, Corbin Burnes and Alex Bregman in their walk years.

7. Roki Sasaki

Japanese pitcher (NR)

He tried to get free this offseason, but failed. He just turned 22. Does he try to come again next offseason or wait until he is 25 so (by rule) he would not be subject to international bonus pool money restrictions. He is viewed as having among the best stuff in the world.

8. Jacob deGrom

Rangers pitcher (7)

9. Max Scherzer

Rangers pitcher (18)

The defending champ Rangers are going to have to survive early without deGrom (recovering from Tommy John surgery) and Scherzer (recovering from back surgery), plus Tyler Mahle (also recovering from Tommy John surgery). Texas, thus, might receive rotation help as the season progresses — although deGrom, 35, and Scherzer, 39, are battling age and growing injury histories.

10. Jackson Chourio

Brewers OF (NR)

11. Jackson Holliday

Orioles OF (NR)

The Jackson 2 are the consensus top prospects. The Brewers believe in Chourio so much that though he has six games of Triple-A experience and none in the majors and does not turn 20 until next month, they signed the outfielder to an eight-year, $82 million pact that might make it easier to put him on the roster to begin the season. The Orioles believe in Holliday so much that they were thinking of bringing him to the majors for the stretch run and playoffs last year before his 20th birthday. Holliday breezed through four levels last year, all the way to 18 games at Triple-A, and overall hit .323 with a .941 OPS. When he makes the Orioles, he is expected to play mainly second because Baltimore already has 2023 AL Rookie of the Year Gunnar Henderson at short.

12. Wander Franco

Rays SS (NR)

13. Trevor Bauer

Free-agent pitcher (10)

14. Julio Urias

Free-agent pitcher (17)

Each should be in prime years. But Franco is likely to go back on MLB-issued administrative leave once spring training officially begins for the Rays while he goes through the court system in the Dominican Republic over accusations of physical and sexual abuse and commercial sexual exploitation of a minor. The Rays went beyond their historical financial cautiousness to sign Franco to an 11-year, $182 million extension to be the centerpiece of their team. Franco, 23 on March 1, should be entering Year 3 of that deal.

Bauer, 33, was suspended in 2022 by commissioner Rob Manfred for 324 games, eventually reduced to 194, under MLB’s domestic violence policy. Bauer played in Japan last season and has said he would take a minimum contract just to prove himself back in the majors. So far, no takers.

Urias should have been among the most pursued free agents this offseason as a 27-year-old proven lefty with postseason pedigree. Instead, he was placed on administrative leave to close last season as the Los Angeles district attorney determines whether to file charges against Urias for domestic violence. MLB awaits that pronouncement before determining if there will be any league sanctions against a player who was suspended 20 games in 2019 under the domestic violence policy.

Julio Urias Getty Images

15. Aaron Boone

Yankees manger (NR)

16. Carlos Mendoza

Mets manager (NR)

Boone is entering his walk year with the Yankees, and his former bench coach, Mendoza, his first year with the Mets. Both New York managers face pressure. The Yanks talked significant change after missing the playoffs but none really took place. But a second such failure — and perhaps even not advancing deep into the postseason — would exert pressure on Hal Steinbrenner to change managers, as much as he personally likes Boone. Mendoza does not have the immediate playoff mandate, but the expectation is contention, at minimum, while Mendoza shows he can handle this role.

17. Alex Cora

Red Sox manager (NR)

Like Boone, he is a free agent after this season with the Red Sox. But like Counsell, Cora should be in (cha-ching) great demand after this season (what if the Dodgers don’t win it all, does he return to the team that drafted him in 1996?). He will be in demand.

Red Sox manager Alex Cora Robert Sabo for NY Post

18. Rob Manfred

MLB commissioner (4)

The commissioner had a good 2023 with the generally well-received, well-executed new rules and MLB attendance going over 70 million for the first time since 2017. Now he, like NBA commissioner Adam Silver and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, must maneuver a sport from what appears to be the collapse of a former financial cornerstone — the money from regional sports networks to individual teams — to whatever the streaming future is going to be.

19. Mike Trout

Angels OF (22)

This is the once-great actor reduced to dinner theater in Anaheim. The Angels couldn’t make the playoffs with Trout and Ohtani together and Ohtani certainly isn’t doing dinner theater in Hollywood. Trout is in the conversation with Ernie Banks as the best position player never to win a postseason game — his Angels were swept in 2014 in his only playoff appearance. Trout has played just 48.8 percent of his games the last three years due to injuries. He will turn 33 during this season.

Angels center fielder Mike Trout Corey Sipkin for the NY POST

20. Aaron Judge

Yankees OF (5)

His homer pace last year (8.1 percent) was not far off the 8.9 when he hit a Yankees record 62 in 2022 to force the organization to give in on a nine-year, $360 million contract. His freak toe injury, though, limited Judge to 238 fewer plate appearances last year. Healthy, what can Judge and Soto do as a tandem?

21. Theo Epstein

Red Sox adviser (NR)

Word is that Epstein will not be involved in the day-to-day running of the Red Sox in his new role as part owner and senior adviser to the Fenway Sports Group. But it is Theo Epstein — slayer of curses in Boston and Chicago. The Red Sox have a first-year GM in Craig Breslow, who Epstein hired to his first post-playing career job with the Cubs. They have a fan base angry at consecutive last-place finishes and the unwillingness to participate at the top of the free-agent market. Is Epstein really not going to gravitate to helping to right the Fenway part of the Fenway Sports Group?

Theo Epstein AP

22. Justin Verlander

Astros pitcher (19)

The Mets will be active watchers if the veteran righty reaches 140 innings because, if so (and he is deemed healthy enough to pitch in 2025), then his $35 million contract for 2025 vests, and the Mets are required to pay $17.5 million. In addition, Verlander turns 41 this month and begins the year with 257 wins. Can he get to 300 before calling it a career. If not, will anyone ever again?

23. Clayton Kershaw

Dodgers pitcher (NR)

He was through 16 seasons and nearly 3,000 innings between the regular season and playoffs before enduring his first surgery. But the repair to his shoulder is going to cost the Hall-bound lefty at least the first half of 2024. He had weighed returning home to finish his career with the Rangers. But after being smashed for six runs in one-third of an inning in the Division Series against Arizona, Kershaw decided to return to the star-laden Dodgers to see if he can write a better ending. He anticipates pitching sometime in summer.

24. Ichiro Suzuki

Former OF (NR)

25. CC Sabathia

Former pitcher (NR)

26. Billy Wagner

Former pitcher (NR)

27. Dick Allen

Former 1B (NR)

Suzuki and Sabathia are the best first-year candidates who will be on the Hall of Fame ballot next offseason. Suzuki will breeze in — perhaps unanimously. Sabathia, an ace in the Jack Morris style, will be a bigger question with his 3.74 career ERA. Wagner, after missing out by five votes last month, is facing his 10th and final year on the ballot. The 16-member Classic Baseball Era will consider an eight-person ballot in December of those who made their greatest contributions prior to 1980. The last two times this era was considered, Allen missed by one vote of election on each occasion.

28. Corbin Burnes

Orioles pitcher (NR)

No team (not even the Yankees with Soto) obtained a player that so fit its current needs like the AL East defending champion Orioles did in landing an ace in a trade with the Brewers. Will Burnes honor that by excelling so much in his walk year that he becomes the most desirable starter in a free-agent market that also could have Shane Bieber, Walker Buehler, Max Fried and Zack Wheeler?

Corbin Burnes AP

29. David Stearns

Mets executive (48)

The executive handoff from Jared Porter to Zack Scott to Billy Eppler with some Sandy Alderson mixed in hardly went as Steve Cohen had envisioned. But he did call for patience in hiring a president of baseball operations, insisting the right person, not expediency, was key. Once it became clear that Stearns would be free after the 2023 campaign, Cohen focused upon the former Brewers executive. Stearns has stressed defense and depth for 2024 and roster and financial flexibility moving forward. He’s now on the clock.

Mets owner Steve Cohen and David Stearns, the new President of Baseball Operations Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

30. Steve Cohen

Mets owner (2)

He was No. 1 on this list in 2022 and No. 2 last year (behind Ohtani). So he can’t fall off, right? He is not as financially gung-ho as a year ago, yet will still have the team with the largest payroll (partially because of dead money via his willingness to eat substantial portions of the contracts of Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander). Thus, the Mets will be paying the so-called “Steve Cohen Tax” at 110 percent for every cent spent above $297 million. By the way, this is full Year 4 of the ownership for Cohen, who had said he hoped to win a title within his first five seasons.

31. Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

Blue Jays 1B (NR)

His batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage have dropped in each of the last two seasons after finishing as the AL MVP runner-up to Ohtani in 2021. He was a good-to-very good player, but not great last season. Yet, he still ended up as the cover for “MLB The Show 24” — as his father was in 2006. Vlad Sr. was en route to the Hall of Fame. Vlad Jr. is en route to free agency after the 2025 season (as is Blue Jays teammate Bo Bichette). Will he build his value toward that moment?

32. Bobby Witt Jr.

Royals SS (NR)

Over the last six seasons, the Royals (.389) are the majors’ lone team with a sub-.400 winning percentage. They are trying to reverse course, between spending $109.5 million (the fifth-most among teams) on seven free agents and establishing Witt as their tent pole after he signed an 11-year, $288.78 million extension that could unfurl into a 14-year, $377 million deal in all.

33. Julio Rodriguez

Mariners OF (46)

The players who have had two seasons of at least 25 homers and 25 steals through their age-22 season: Mike Trout and J-Rod. End of the list.

Elly De La Cruz

Reds SS (NR)

The most fascinating of the talented young players the Reds promoted last year because you could believe scenarios in 2024 in which De La Cruz is an All-Star or sent back to the minors. As a rookie, in just 98 games, he hit 13 homers, stole 35 bases and was a highlight staple for his daring and athleticism. He also struck out in 33.7 percent of his plate appearances and had an 89 OPS-plus.

35. John Fisher

A’s owner (NR)

The owner has infuriated Oakland by announcing he is leaving to not exactly open arms (and a solid plan) in Las Vegas. Can he get the move solidified, including where the A’s will play from 2025-27 as a stadium is built in Vegas? All the while he is budgeting for a roster more fitting of Triple-A’s.

Athletics owner John Fisher. AP

36. Mookie Betts

Dodgers 2B (NR)

37. Freddie Freeman

Dodgers 1B (NR)

With Ohtani and Yamamoto arriving to the Dodgers, a reminder that Betts and Freeman finished 2-3 in the NL MVP voting last year. But they were a combined 1-for-21 as Los Angeles was swept out of the Division Series by Arizona.

38. Ronald Acuña Jr.

Braves OF (NR)

What does the NL MVP do for an encore after becoming the first-ever 40/70 player with 41 homers and 73 steals? As a sidelight, will his younger brother, Luisangel — acquired by the Mets last trade deadline for Scherzer — make it to The Show?

39. Edwin Diaz

Mets closer (NR)

The first misstep (literally and metaphorically) of the 2023 Mets season was Diaz tearing his patellar tendon celebrating during the World Baseball Classic. He missed the season. Does he return to his 2022 dominance (50.2 percent strikeouts), which would allow the Mets to more comfortably form a bullpen?

Mets closer Edwin Diaz Corey Sipkin for the NY POST

40. Shota Imanaga

Cubs pitcher (NR)

The lefty was the “other” Japanese star starter who was imported this offseason, signing a four-year, $53 million deal with the Cubs. He does not have Yamamoto’s stuff and expectations. But the Cubs need him to help replace Marcus Stroman.

41. Marcus Stroman

Yankees pitcher (NR)

The Yankees had their offseason heart set on signing Yamamoto. Stroman is a fallback who publicly stated he is good with Brian Cashman, upon whom he once waged a social media offensive.

Marcus Stroman Getty Images

42. Joe Espada

Astros manager (NR)

The longtime bridesmaid when it came to interviewing and not getting a managerial job finally got the big seat, moving from Dusty Baker’s bench coach to Astros skipper. But he is not just following a legend. He comes at a time of potential transition for the Astros, who have appeared in the ALCS seven straight years. A few key clubhouse lieutenants — Michael Brantley, Martin Maldonado and Hector Neris — followed key components such as Gerrit Cole, Carlos Correa and George Springer out the door. Alex Bregman and Verlander are potentially in their walk years. The Astros kept winning when Baker took over from A.J. Hinch and despite defections and distractions from the sign-stealing scandal. That is the expectation. Can Espada keep it going?

43. Carlos Correa

Twins SS (3)

He went from failing physicals to eliminate a 13-year, $350 million deal with the Giants and a 12-year, $315 million deal with the Mets to signing a six-year, $200 pact with the Twins, and then going out and hitting .230 while grounding into 30 double plays — the most in the majors since Casey McGehee had 31 in 2014. Correa is only 29, but can he still be an elite player?

44. Francisco Alvarez

Mets catcher (8)

45. Anthony Volpe

Yankees SS (9)

Both had interesting first full seasons in which they defended better than expected and maturely handled the ups and downs in which both hit just .209 with Alvarez striking out 26 percent of the time and Volpe 27.8 percent. Are Alvarez and Volpe stars or just dudes?

46. Bryce Harper

Phillies 1B (12)

He was returning from Tommy John surgery, made it back to the majors by May 2 and transitioned to playing first base, where he will be again in 2024. Harper has become beloved in Philadelphia and it is now possible, especially because of the postseason element (.996 OPS in 49 games), that he won’t have a better statistical career than Trout, but he will end up a Hall of Famer with the more desirable career.

47. Brian Cashman

Yankees GM (NR)

Unlike Boone, Cashman’s contract is not expiring in 2024. But after a Yankees season which he labeled a “disaster,” Cashman needs to demonstrate he still has the touch in getting the team to the playoffs with a promising future. So a few from Volpe, Austin Wells, Jasson Dominguez, Everson Pereira, Oswald Peraza and Spencer Jones must emerge as the kind of above-average position players that the organization just has not produced in bulk during Cashman’s GM tenure.

Yankees GM Brian Cashman JASON SZENES FOR THE NEW YORK POST

48. Alek Manoah

Blue Jays pitcher (NR)

He went from third in the AL Cy Young vote in 2022 to a 5.87 ERA in a 2023 season in which he was twice demoted to the minors. Who is he?

49. Dwight Gooden

Former pitcher (NR)

50. Darryl Strawberry

Former OF (NR)

Gooden will have his No. 16 retired at Citi Field on April 14. Strawberry will have his No. 18 retired June 1. If nothing else, nostalgia should be strong around the Mets this year.

Who dropped off last year’s list?

Fernando Tatis Jr. (6); Bryan Reynolds (11); Jung-hoo Lee (14); Chaim Bloom (15); Manny Machado (16); Noah Syndergaard (20); Carlos Beltran (21); Mark DeRosa (23); Miguel Cabrera (24); Stephen Strasburg (25); Kodai Senga (26); Carlos Rodon (27); Xander Bogaerts (28); Dansby Swanson (29); Trea Turner (30); Cody Bellinger (31); Michael Conforto (32); Joey Gallo (33); Aroldis Chapman (34); Kenley Jansen (35); Craig Kimbrel (36); A.J. Preller (37); Peter Seidler (38); Arte Moreno (39); Dusty Baker (40); Chris Bassitt (41); Jameson Taillon (42); Taijuan Walker (43); Tony Clark (44); Andrew Painter (45); Adley Rutschman (47); Bruce Bochy (49); Andrew McCutchen (50)

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