Agent: Ohtani has right to explore free agency

TEMPE, Ariz. — Shohei Ohtani‘s agent, Nez Balelo, has been consistently coy about his client’s contract status, but he hinted Monday at something many in the industry had long assumed — that Ohtani will probably explore free agency, even if it does ultimately result in him returning to the Los Angeles Angels.

Balelo, who works for CAA Sports, was asked Monday if he’d be open to negotiating an extension for Ohtani during spring training.

“I’ve always been open to it,” Balelo said. “But there’s several layers to this one, and Shohei’s earned the right to play through the year, explore free agency, and we’ll see where it shakes out.”

He was later asked to clarify if that meant a spring training deal was unlikely.

“I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again — we’re taking one day at a time,” Balelo said. “I’m not putting the cart before the horse on this one.”

Ohtani, 28, has performed as both an elite hitter and an elite pitcher over these past two seasons and could fetch a free agent contract in the neighborhood of $500 million if he does so again.

The Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Mets are widely expected to be his most aggressive suitors, but several others — namely the Chicago Cubs, San Francisco Giants and Seattle Mariners — could have the payroll flexibility to get into the sweepstakes. And the Angels, who opted against trading him last summer and in the ensuing winter, would certainly be interested in bringing him back.

Balelo, again, would not comment when asked about the status of negotiations with the Angels or if he has had any substantive talks with the team in recent weeks. Ohtani has sounded somewhat neutral when asked about playing for the Angels, including during his first media session last week, but Balelo said Ohtani is comfortable with the organization.

Arte Moreno’s surprising decision to pull the Angels off the market and remain the owner made it “business as usual,” Balelo added.

The Angels, however, have made the playoffs only once in the past 13 years and haven’t put together a winning season since 2015, three years before Ohtani’s rookie season.

“He’s so competitive, like all great players are, so of course they want to experience postseason, of course they’d love to be in the World Series,” Balelo said. “But is that the deciding factor? I don’t know. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

Balelo expressed optimism in the Angels’ maneuverings this offseason, which included adding several veteran players — infielders Gio Urshela and Brandon Drury, outfielder Hunter Renfroe, starting pitcher Tyler Anderson, relief pitchers Carlos Estevez and Matt Moore — in an effort to deepen the 40-man roster.

The front office’s hope is that the added depth, when coupled with the star power of Ohtani, Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon — the latter of whom is coming off wrist surgery — will at least keep the Angels competitive deep into the season.

Showing Ohtani they can win around him could be critical in the Angels’ efforts to keep him.

If it is, his agent won’t really say.

“Shohei’s been here five years, now this is his final year,” Balelo said, “and now we have free agency, so of course there’s gonna be a lot of questions — what does he wanna do, where’s he gonna go, all of it. And I’ve said this so many times and Shohei has said it as well — we really take it day by day, one day at a time.

“I’ve always wanted him to enjoy this ride that he’s on. I’ve wanted him to embrace it. That’s what he’s done. We’re gonna continue that.”