For better or worse, Shohei Ohtani once again baseball’s biggest story

In recent years, Major League Baseball has struggled to promote its stars. While other leagues have positioned their players as some of the most famous people in the world — think Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, LeBron James, etc. — many of baseball’s best could probably go out in public and remain completely unrecognized.

But in Shohei Ohtani, baseball finally has a talent who can’t be ignored.

Baseball’s first true two-way superstar since Babe Ruth, Ohtani has achieved superhuman status in his native Japan and broken into the American cultural mainstream unlike any other player of this generation. The two-time MVP recently signed the largest contract in North American professional sports history, and by joining the powerhouse Dodgers, the expectation is he’ll finally have a chance to showcase his talents on the biggest stage in October.

But fame can be a double-edged sword, as MLB learned the hard way these past few weeks.

Right as Ohtani was set to begin his career with the Dodgers, he found himself at the center of a bizarre and unsettling gambling scandal that has taken the sports world by storm.

Ippei Mizuhara, Ohtani’s longtime interpreter, was fired by the team after he allegedly stole millions of dollars from Ohtani to pay off gambling debts. The situation came to light after reporters inquired about $4.5 million in wire transfers sent from Ohtani’s bank account to a bookmaking operation that is under federal investigation.

Those questions led to a rapid series of events in which Mizuhara initially claimed Ohtani had paid off his debts, only to later recant that story after Ohtani reportedly began questioning that version of events following a clubhouse meeting in which Dodgers officials informed the team a negative story was coming.

Ohtani’s lawyers then told ESPN that “in the course of responding to recent media inquiries, we discovered that Shohei has been the victim of a massive theft and we are turning the matter over to the authorities.” MLB has since opened a formal investigation into the matter, and baseball fans across the country have been left to wonder just what’s going on.

Given baseball’s unpleasant history with gambling any scandal like this was bound to garner headlines, but Ohtani’s involvement has taken things to another level. Instead of talking about March Madness, NFL free agency or the usual go-to topics like the Lakers or Cowboys, all the national daytime sports talk shows focused on Ohtani, and much of the conversation revolved around the inconsistencies in the story and to what extent Ohtani might have been involved.

For as long as the investigation is ongoing, this situation is going to loom like a cloud over Ohtani and the Dodgers.

At this point Ohtani hasn’t been accused of any wrongdoing and the investigation could prove he truly was the victim of Mizuhara’s crimes. It doesn’t seem to have affected his performance either, as Ohtani was batting .385 with an .862 OPS through his first three games with Los Angeles, but any perception that baseball’s biggest star could be a gambling cheat is a horrible place for the sport to be.

Los Angeles Dodgers star Shohei Ohtani prepares to bat during the second inning of a spring training game against the Los Angeles Angels on Monday, March 25, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Los Angeles Dodgers star Shohei Ohtani prepares to bat during the second inning of a spring training game against the Los Angeles Angels on Monday, March 25, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

For better or worse Ohtani is going to be the story of this season once again, and hopefully by season’s end for on-field reasons and not because this story has developed in a way that could tar his legacy forever.

Primed for breakout?

In 2022, the Texas Rangers and Arizona Diamondbacks finished fourth in their respective divisions with fewer than 75 wins and were more than 37 games out of first place.

A year later, the clubs faced off against one another in the World Series.

Things can change quickly in baseball, and six months from now there will probably be at least one team nobody is talking about who will emerge as a surprise contender. Who could that be? Trying to guess now is a recipe for looking foolish down the road, but there are a couple of clubs who fit the profile.

The most likely candidate for a turnaround has to be the St. Louis Cardinals, who have reliably been among the most steady franchises in baseball before the bottom inexplicably fell out last season. St. Louis finished 71-91, its worst season in 33 years, thanks to a perfect storm of underperformance, injuries and the complete collapse of its starting rotation. The Cardinals have since revamped their pitching staff, signing Sonny Gray, Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson in free agency, and boast a talented lineup led by Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado.

The NL Central isn’t a gauntlet either, so St. Louis should at minimum get back in the conversation this year.

As for the American League, the Red Sox might have the most potential for improvement. Despite a disappointing offseason in which the club barely brought in any meaningful reinforcements, Boston’s roster is well stocked with young talent and should benefit from a full season of Trevor Story at shortstop. Even if that is only good for a six or seven win improvement, that might be all it takes to climb back into the playoff conversation.

While they started from such a deep hole it’ll probably take a couple more years to climb out, the Kansas City Royals are interesting too. The Royals were arguably the most active player in free agency after the Dodgers, shoring up their roster with numerous proven veterans who will significantly raise the club’s floor, and they also boast high-end talent with MVP candidate Bobby Witt Jr. and potential Cy Young dark horse Cole Ragans.

With the AL Central in such a sorry state, it’s not hard to imagine the Royals making a significant jump. Going from 56-106 to division title contention will be a tall order, but Kansas City should at least be worth paying attention to.

Rangers reinforcements

It’s not often you see a team pick within the top five of the MLB Draft and then win the World Series a couple of months later, but that’s how things worked out the Texas Rangers last year.

It’s even less often you see that top five pick make the Opening Day roster the following season.

Wyatt Langford, who the Rangers selected No. 4 overall in last July’s draft, made Texas’ Opening Day roster and should provide an immediate boost to a Rangers club that already features All-Stars up and down the lineup. The 22-year-old outfielder, who this time last year was crushing SEC pitching for the Florida Gators, feasted on the Cactus League competition throughout spring training and batted fifth for the defending champions on Opening Day, going 1 for 3 with a walk and a sacrifice fly in Texas’ 4-3 extra-innings win over the Chicago Cubs.

Texas Rangers rookie Wyatt Langford warms up before a spring training game against the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday, March 26, 2024, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Jeffrey McWhorter)
Texas Rangers rookie Wyatt Langford warms up before a spring training game against the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday, March 26, 2024, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Jeffrey McWhorter)

The best part for Texas, he might not even be the club’s top contender for Rookie of the Year. That honor likely belongs to fellow outfielder Evan Carter.

Beyond the continued development of its elite position player core, Texas could potentially bring in some high-level pitching reinforcement as the season goes on. Future Hall of Famer Max Scherzer, who will miss the start of the season after undergoing offseason back surgery, may not be out as long as feared and opened the season on the 15-day injured list instead of the 60-day IL.

Jacob deGrom, who underwent Tommy John surgery last season, is also targeting an August return and could give the Rangers rotation a massive boost.

Even with the talent they have available now, Texas should be more than capable of competing with the Houston Astros atop the AL West. But at full strength? The Rangers could be looking at another special October.

Watch out for Skubal

When discussing potential contenders for AL Cy Young, usually you’ll hear a familiar handful of names. Toronto’s Kevin Gausman, Baltimore’s Corbin Burnes, Seattle’s Luis Castillo, Houston’s Framber Valdez and, before his elbow injury, New York’s Gerrit Cole. But there’s also another name that’s garnered a lot of buzz, one less familiar to casual fans who has nonetheless emerged as a preseason favorite for the award.

Detroit’s Tarik Skubal.

The 27-year-old left-hander is entering his fifth season in the big leagues, and multiple projections suggest he’s about to pop off in a big way. Last season Skubal posted ace-like numbers, including 2.70 ERA with 102 strikeouts in only 80.1 innings, but he was limited to only 15 starts due to a flexor tendon injury. This year he enters 2024 projected by FanGraphs’ Steamer system to post a 3.33 ERA with 198 strikeouts over 171.1 innings, all of which are expected to rank among the best in baseball. The Athletic sees him similarly, projecting a 3.47 ERA with 180 strikeouts over 158 innings.

Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Tarik Skubal delivers during the first inning of the Chicago White Sox's home opener on Thursday in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Tarik Skubal delivers during the first inning of the Chicago White Sox’s home opener on Thursday in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Skubal certainly lived up to those expectations on Opening Day, throwing six shutout innings in Detroit’s 1-0 win over the Chicago White Sox.

D-Backs strike fast

The Arizona Diamondbacks have big ambitions after winning the National League pennant last October, and they certainly made a statement on Opening Day, jumping out to a 16-1 lead on Colorado by the third inning, including a historic 14-run bottom of the third.

The Diamondbacks batted around twice, sending 18 men to the plate while forcing the Rockies to use three different pitchers. The onslaught featured 10 singles, three doubles, two walks and a sacrifice fly, and it didn’t end until Rockies reliever Jalen Beeks came on and was finally able to get Alek Thomas to ground out to end the inning after 34 minutes of real time.

The 14 runs set a new Arizona franchise record for runs in an inning, and according to MLB researcher Sarah Langs was tied for the fourth most in an inning by any team since 1900. The Red Sox hold the record in that span, having scored 17 runs in the seventh inning against the Detroit Tigers on June 18, 1953.

Not a good look

Two months ago when players started reporting for spring training, they got their first look at MLB’s newly redesigned uniforms. The reception was not good.

Designed by Nike and manufactured by Fanatics, the new uniform’s perceived lack of quality became a flashpoint at camps across the sport, with players complaining about the jersey’s papery feel, the smaller names on the back, colors that weren’t quite right, and especially the pants, which players said were both see-through and poorly fitting.

The Red Sox clubhouse was no exception, with numerous players expressing disappointment about the uniforms and Nick Pivetta describing them as “not professional.”

MLB notes: New uniforms ruffling feathers in Red Sox clubhouse

This week the new uniforms took center stage for the first time on big league fields, and they didn’t look any better under the bright lights. Beyond the usual complaints over the small names and cheap look, fans also noted other issues that hadn’t previously been apparent, like the New York Yankees players being completely drenched in sweat during their opener in Houston.

Maybe it wasn’t as glaring before because spring training jerseys aren’t supposed to look that great anyway, but this week highlighted just how big a fiasco this redesign’s proven to be. While these uniforms are likely here to stay for at least the rest of this season, hopefully common sense will prevail and Nike will either go back to the old template or make the necessary improvements to bring the new one up to major league standard.

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