February 27, 2024

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts acknowledged Tuesday that his team met with two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani at Dodger Stadium “a couple days ago,” becoming the first person to divulge even the most basic information about a highly touted free agency that has played out in secrecy.

“Clearly,” Roberts said, “Shohei’s our top priority.”

The Dodgers, Los Angeles Angels, Chicago Cubs, San Francisco Giants and Toronto Blue Jays are believed to be the finalists for Ohtani, who could choose his destination within the week. Blue Jays manager John Schneider, speaking in the wake of reports that his team met with Ohtani at its spring training facility in Dunedin, Florida, on Monday, wouldn’t comment on talks with Ohtani. Chicago Cubs manager Craig Counsell said he personally has not met with Ohtani but dismissed any connection to the team’s overall interest in him.

“I like to be honest,” Roberts said during his media session from the site of the winter meetings. “Yeah, we met with Shohei, we talked. And I think it went well. I think it went well. But 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 Dodgers have long been seen as favorites for Ohtani, though the Blue Jays have emerged as a legitimate threat.

The Dodgers are juggling a pursuit of Ohtani with a desire to add two to three pitchers for their starting rotation, a need that has placed them among the most aggressive suitors for fellow Japanese starter Yoshinobu Yamamoto. Signing both is not out of the question.

Ohtani, who has suffered two torn ulnar collateral ligaments in a five-year span, underwent what was vaguely described as some hybrid version of Tommy John surgery in September and he isn’t expected to pitch again until 2025. He’ll serve merely as a designated hitter this coming season, but Roberts expressed confidence that Ohtani would bounce back from surgery to once again perform as a two-way player.

The Dodgers were among the finalists for Ohtani when he first came over from Japan in 2017 but were hurt at least in part by not yet having the DH available in the National League.

“In ’17, I think it was more of an overview; more of a sell on things he didn’t really know about — the country, the city, the organization, potential role,” Roberts said. “And I think that this situation, not trying to speak for him but it’s a little bit more narrowed on what his desires are, as far as teams, and I don’t think the sell needed to be as large. I think it was more of just kind of trying to feel what everyday life would look like.”

Roberts said this year’s meeting lasted somewhere in the neighborhood of two to three hours and did not involve any Dodgers players. He said he felt “good about it” but hinted at not getting much of a sense from Ohtani himself.

“He has a very good poker face,” Roberts said. “I think he was smiling inside. But I was just happy to spend some time with him. We all were.”

The Dodgers, NL West champions 10 of the past 11 years, would satisfy Ohtani’s desire to win but also remain in Southern California. They also have the resources to maximize his abilities as a two-way player. But those familiar with Ohtani’s thinking have pointed to the comfort and familiarity of the Angels as a real draw, while others have said he has long been intrigued by Toronto. The Giants and Cubs, meanwhile, have the financial capabilities to hand out a contract that is now widely expected to exceed $500 million.

The Dodgers’ meeting with Ohtani, Roberts said, was mostly about two sides becoming more familiar with one another.

“He had questions for us, just trying to get more of the landscape,” Roberts said. “Being in this league for six years, he’s got a pretty good idea of the Dodgers, what we’re about, the city itself. And so for me and speaking for our guys, it was just a pleasure to get to spend some time with him.”

Ohtani’s free agency has been handled almost exclusively by Nez Balelo, his agent at CAA, Ippei Mizuhara, his interpreter, and Ohtani himself, with few others, if any, closely involved. Interested suitors have reportedly been told that divulging information about meetings could compromise their chances of landing Ohtani, but Roberts didn’t seem worried about that.

“I don’t feel like lying is something that I do,” Roberts said. “I was asked a question, and to be forthright in the situation, we kept it quiet. But I think it’s going to come out at some point that we met. It obviously already has. I don’t think myself or anybody in our organization would like to lie about it.”

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