NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The mystery and secrecy of the Shohei Ohtani free-agent sweepstakes was finally lifted Tuesday with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Toronto Blue Jays emerging as the co-favorites for baseball’s biggest star, while the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Angels still remain in the picture.
The Chicago Cubs, who were in the mix early in the sweepstakes, now appear to be out after balking at Ohtani’s price tag of 10 years and at least $500 million, according to one high-ranking Cubs official.
The official spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of negotiations.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, who was later scolded by his bosses, said the Dodgers met with Ohtani at Dodger Stadium for a few hours late last week. They were the first team to acknowledge a private meeting with Ohtani. The two-time MVP also recently met with the Blue Jays and Giants, but their team officials have declined to confirm that.
“Clearly,’’ Roberts said, “Shohei's our top priority.’’
Roberts spoke freely and relaxed for 20 minutes, but the moment his media session ended, a stern text message on his cellphone awaited him. He immediately huddled with Dodgers’ public relations officials to make sure he was no longer so candid.
Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers' president of baseball operations, and GM Brandon Gomes each declined to even confirm they met with Ohtani.
“It’s just not something I’m going to talk about,’’ Gomes said. “We’re not allowed to talk about current free agents.’’
Roberts instead did the talking before Friedman and Gomes spoke, much to the front office’s chagrin.
Dave Roberts on Shohei Ohtani: 'We really hope he feels' the Dodgers are 'a fit'
“I would like to be honest, and so we met with Shohei,’’ Roberts said. “I don’t feel like lying is something that I do. I was asked a question, and to be forthright in this situation, we kept it quiet. But I think that it’s going to come out at some point that we met.
“So, I don't think myself or anyone in our organization would want to lie about it.’’
When asked if there was a danger in being candid, considering that Ohtani and agent Nez Balelo have asked for privacy during the free agency process, Roberts dismissed the notion.
“There's a respect of privacy, which I think that we've done that,’’ Roberts said. “There is a foundational integrity part of it I feel, and not necessarily the gamesmanship part of it, which is still plausible and fair.
“For me, it's hard to get a pointed question and then to just give a false answer knowingly. So, I don't think it's disrespect to anybody in Shohei's party or on our side. I think that the details are going to be withheld, which I think they should be, but it's pretty clear he's a priority for us.’’
Roberts said the meeting really wasn’t a “sales pitch." The sides simply wanted to familiarize themselves with each other while the Dodgers conveyed their strong interest.
“It was more of just sort of getting more familiar with him,’’ Roberts said. “I think that he had questions for us, just trying to get more of the landscape. But being in this league for six years, he's got a pretty good idea of the Dodgers, what we're about, the city itself. …
“I think it's pretty easy to have conversations with anyone if you feel comfortable in what you're about, who you work with. We're about people. We're about winning. So, I think that that's pretty easy to talk about.
“You know, there's no hiding of the ball, it's just kind of 'here we are,' and we really hope he feels it's a fit.’’
Blue Jays, Giants have also had meetings with Shohei Ohtani
The Blue Jays and Giants also hosted Ohtani in recent days, but they refused to discuss their meetings. Cubs manager Craig Counsell acknowledged he has not had a face-to-face meeting with Ohtani, but just like everyone else in the baseball world he anxiously awaits Ohtani's decision.
“I think as a baseball fan,’’ Counsell said, “we all want to know where the great players are going to play.’’
It has not been publicly revealed when Ohtani will make his decision, but if teams really know, they’re not saying.
“Not one that I’m comfortable sharing,’’ Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins said. “We’re fortunate to be one that’s being considered.’’
Roberts expects a decision soon, but certainly there is not a hard deadline.
“No one’s putting his foot to the fire,’’ Roberts said, “and he’ll make the decision when he and Nez and his camp feel appropriate. …
“At the end of the day, he's his own man and he's going to do what's best for himself, where he feels most comfortable.’’
The cloaked secrecy of Ohtani’s free agency may not be unprecedented, but it certainly is rare. Ohtani and Balelo, his agent, have not provided any hints, clues or the slightest traces of information. They’ve even instructed teams to keep quiet. If they don't, the leaks could jeopardize teams' chances of signing Ohtani.
“I think that anybody that has earned the right to be a free agent,’’ Gomes said, “should handle it exactly how they want to.’’
When asked if he thought that Roberts’ comments could cause repercussions, Gomes said, “It’s not something I’m going to worry about right now.’’
Well, spilled beans or not, Roberts still is confident the Dodgers will land the biggest free-agent prize in baseball history.
“I feel good about it,’’ Roberts said, “but, again, you know, he's his own man, which we all respect... He has a very good poker face. So, I think he was smiling inside. But I was just happy to spend some time with him.
“We all were.’’
Soon, this magical mystery tour will end, and everyone once again will be able to talk freely about the game’s greatest player, without the slightest worry of repercussions.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Shohei Ohtani, Dodgers admit meeting but Cubs out on free agent star