With Shohei Ohtani now officially a member of the Dodgers and in possession of a record-setting 10-year, $700MM contract, agent Nez Balelo pulled back the curtain a bit on Ohtani’s very secretive free agent explorations in an interview with USA Today’s Bob Nightengale.
The purposeful lack of direct information about the Ohtani sweepstakes only added to the firestorm of media speculation about where the two-way superstar might land, and the tight hand that Balelo reportedly kept on the proceedings drew some criticism for its perceived over-the-top nature. However, the CAA agent unsurprisingly didn’t have any regrets about the tactics.
“I’m so glad we did it this way, and I would do the same thing over and over again. There’s not even a question in my mind,” Balelo said. “The clubs appreciated it and respected it. There wasn’t a team that said, ’You know what, let’s just get this out.’ Shohei and I wanted to be able to control the narrative, and teams were on board with it. I heard that some media members felt that I needed to share information because this is a historical moment, but I 100% disagree. I can’t even begin to even think how that makes sense. There has to be a level of confidentiality….This was arguably the most highly exposed free agent ever on the market, and ultimately, I got the best result. So how can you judge and criticize the way that I approached this?“
That said, Balelo also seemed to push back against reports that suggested any public acknowledgement by a team of its interest in Ohtani could or would detract from the team’s chances. “That was ridiculous. Those words never came out of my mouth,” Balelo said, pointing out that Dodgers manager Dave Roberts’ admission at the Winter Meetings that L.A. was in on Ohtani “sure didn’t have an effect, did it?”
Ohtani said during Spring Training that he wanted to test free agency and not discuss an extension with the Angels during the season, allowing Balelo and the CAA team to craft “a well thought-out approach” months in advance of Ohtani’s official entry into the market. Balelo met with executives from several teams during the GM Meetings, which the agent viewed as “a good gauge of where the interest level was, to understand who was serious, and who really who was just kicking the tires. There were a lot of teams that weren’t going to be in play because of the level of [money] where they all felt this was going to go. So that that pretty much eliminated half the field.”
As more and more teams fell out of the race, the five finalists were the Dodgers, Angels, Giants, Cubs, and Blue Jays. “The Dodgers were always at the forefront in talks,” Nightengale writes, and Balelo similarly wasn’t surprised when Ohtani informed his agent late in the afternoon on December 8 that he had decided to sign with Los Angeles.
This happened to be the same day that multiple reports suggested Ohtani had agreed to a deal with the Jays, and was en route to Toronto in a private jet. Balelo described the situation as “about the most reckless reporting I’ve ever experienced in this game,” as “I felt really, really bad for the country of Canada. And I felt really, really bad for the Toronto Blue Jays organization. They are really good people. What they had to endure, and the pain, wasn’t right. I felt so bad for all of them that they had to go through that because it was the extreme emotional roller coaster of thinking that they had him and then finding out they didn’t.”
The Dodgers weren’t officially told Ohtani’s decision until the next day, and Balelo then called the Jays, Giants, Cubs, and Angels in turn to also break the news before Ohtani officially announced his choice via Instagram. Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman already had some inkling of Ohtani’s choice on December 8 when Balelo inquired whether the Dodgers would agree to Ohtani’s desire to defer the vast majority of his $700MM deal until 2034 and beyond. This offer was already on the table, so the Dodgers made no late increase to convince Ohtani to sign.
Though deferrals have been a common part of baseball contracts for years, Ohtani’s choice to defer $680MM of his salary drew almost as many headlines as his decision itself. In discussing the deferred money, Balelo noted that Ohtani is “in such a unique position because he’s going to make so much money off the field….Basically, he’s in the most unique position of any player in the history of the game to be able to do this. It’s not like we’re setting a precedent that every player now is going to defer everything out in his contract.”
With Ohtani’s deferrals lowering his luxury tax hit to $46MM (rather than $70MM) per season, the Dodgers will very significantly benefit from a Competitive Balance Tax standpoint, and Ohtani will cost himself some overall money due to inflation and the value of money today against money earned in a decade’s time. Balelo described Ohtani’s decision as “the most incredible act of unselfishness and willingness to win that I’ve ever experienced in my life, or ever will. He did not care at all about the present value inflation. And you know what, neither did I. He should be praised for this. He did not want to handcuff a team with his salary. He said, ’How can I contribute to a team and allow them to stay competitive?’ So he took the most unselfish approach possible and deferred everything.”