Published: April 5, 2023 | By: Forbes
When Shohei Ohtani led Team Japan to victory at the World Baseball Classic last week, striking out his Los Angeles Angels teammate Mike Trout to end the championship game, he delivered yet another incredible achievement to his ever-expanding baseball resume. As he enters his sixth big league season, Ohtani has collected a slew of awards, including the 2021 American League MVP. That kind of success has translated financially for the 28-year-old Ohtani, who is now the highest-paid player in baseball.
Forbes estimates Ohtani will collect $65 million in total earnings for the 2023 season before taxes and agents’ fees, an MLB record. Nearly half of that comes from the record-breaking one-year, $30 million contract extension he signed in October to avoid arbitration. Off the field, baseball’s most prolific pitchman continues his ascent to global superstardom, with at least $35 million in endorsement earnings annually, by our count. The next-highest off-the-field total of recent memory was Bryce Harper’s $6.5 million in 2022. Aaron Judge’s endorsement earnings ranked second highest on this year’s list at $4.5 million.
Driving up his pay is the fact that Ohtani continues to be a hit on both sides of the Pacific. His 13 partnerships include, in Japan, pharmaceuticals company Kowa, Seiko Watch and Boss (formerly Hugo Boss) and Fanatics and Topps in the U.S. In the last few months, Ohtani has added lucrative deals with Japanese cosmetics company Kose and New Balance. In addition to outfitting him head-to-toe, the Boston-based apparel brand has global plans for Ohtani, including a major push in Japan and a lifestyle footwear collection.
“Shohei’s commercial impact annually for the Japanese market will be to the tune of tens of millions of dollars, because he is a cultural icon in Japan first and a baseball player second,” says Chris Davis, New Balance’s chief marketing officer and the son of its billionaire chairman Jim Davis. “He’ll probably be the first and only baseball player of this generation that has the ability to have that level of commercial impact for a brand.”
Still, while Ohtani leads the pack, he’s not the only player to hit it out of the park this past year. Baseball’s ten highest-paid players are set to collect a record $436 million combined this year before taxes and agents’ fees, up 15% from last year’s all-time high of $377 million. It’s the result of an offseason that featured an explosive level of spending, like Judge’s nine-year, $360 million deal, Carlos Correa’s six-year, $200 million pact and Justin Verlander’s two-year, $86.7 million agreement. Verlander’s $43.3 million salary ties his New York Mets teammate Max Scherzer as the highest on-field figure for 2023, excluding deferred money.
In total, MLB clubs spent $3.8 billion on free agents, the largest figure in the 12 years of Spotrac’s data. That doesn’t include Manny Machado’s and Rafael Devers’ contract extensions, a pair of $300 million-plus deals from this offseason. It’s a welcome development for baseball, which posted a record $10.3 billion in revenues (net of debt service) in 2022 after a contentious work stoppage last spring threatened the season. “Historically, spending goes up immediately after a new CBA is put into place,” Matt Ricatto, co-head of CAA Baseball, said in an email. “This, coupled with the fact that there are several owners who are 100% all-in to win right now, helped drive this increase the most.”
MLB might have avoided that crisis, but another is unfolding. The recent bankruptcy filing of Diamond Sports Group, which owns the local media rights of 14 MLB teams, has left teams like the Arizona Diamondbacks, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Guardians, Colorado Rockies, Minnesota Twins, Pittsburgh Pirates, Oakland Athletics and San Diego Padres, vulnerable to the loss of a crucial revenue stream. Compounding the matter is Warner Bros. Discovery’s announced intention to exit the regional sports network business; it has rights deals with four MLB teams. Even as financial uncertainty looms, REP1 Baseball CEO Chris Koras says the league has a unique opportunity to reorganize how games are distributed. Over the long run, he adds that the new CBA should keep player spending on the rise, but some teams might get squeezed in the short term.
“The idea of [a market like] Cleveland extending its players to a Julio Rodriguez-type deal I think is probably off the table if it wasn’t already off the table,” he says. “There might be some in the middle class that are not necessarily open to longer-term extensions until there’s stability with this issue but again, they probably previously weren’t exactly excited about those ideas anyways.”
For now, many have their eyes set on the coming offseason and the impending free agency of Ohtani. It’s unclear if he’ll re-sign with the Angels and recently told The Athletic he didn’t know if his representatives have had any conversations with his club about a potential deal. Ohtani’s agent declined to comment on the matter. Whatever club he does end up with next season is expected to pay a king’s ransom. Trout currently owns MLB’s largest contract by total value at $426.5 million. Some predict Ohtani could be the first to cross the $500 million threshold.
“There is going to be a significant return on whoever signs him,” Koras says. “I’m sure that teams are going to be willing to pay a significant premium in a way that may not necessarily make baseball sense, but will make business sense.”
MLB’s historic two-way talent has grown his endorsement portfolio from $6 million in 2021 to $20 million in 2022 and now at least $35 million in 2023. By way of his success, the easily likable, clean-cut Ohtani has the power to command multimillion-dollar brand deals. “Shohei’s earning power is analogous to that of a NBA signature shoe athlete,” New Balance’s Davis says. Expect it to soar higher, both on and off the field.
Scherzer’s time in D.C., which included a World Series title in 2019, is still paying dividends. The 38-year-old ace will collect $15 million in deferred payments from the Washington Nationals in 2023, bolstering his already league-high salary with the Mets. It doesn’t end there. Scherzer has $75 million more in deferred money coming through 2028.
After a brief foray into free agency, Judge became the highest-paid player on the Yankees’ roster thanks to a nine-year, $360 million deal. He also earlier this month joined Nike’s Jordan brand, according to Sports Business Journal, following in the footsteps of another Bronx Bombers captain, Derek Jeter.
Despite turning 40 in February, Justin Verlander remains at the top of his game. He won his second World Series in November and, a few weeks later, picked up his third Cy Young Award. Verlander’s arrival in Queens did not come cheap. Billionaire Mets owner Steve Cohen is shelling out $86.7 million over two years for the right-hander, with a vesting option for a third that would pay $35 million.
It seems that even the injury bug can’t slow down Trout these days—the 31-year-old center fielder still belted 40 home runs in 2022 despite playing in less than 75% of his team’s games. Trout has long-term deals with several brands including Nike and BodyArmor and recently announced that he’s partnering with Tiger Woods to bring a golf course to his hometown of Vineland, New Jersey.
Rendon’s time with the Angels has been marred by injuries–he’s appeared in just 157 of a potential 486 games over three seasons. As he enters the fourth year of the seven-year, $245 million deal he signed in 2019, Rendon’s salary will kick up to $38 million annually for the remainder of the contract.
Carlos Correa’s protracted free agency drama began with reports of his signing with San Francisco, a failed physical, then shifted to New York and another failed physical before ending up back in Minnesota, where he spent the 2022 season. The Twins will pay him at least $200 million over six years, with the potential for $70 million more in vesting options. Off the field, he did in fact change teams, signing with Nike following his time as an Adidas athlete.
Gerrit Cole became the owner of the largest contract by total value ever for a pitcher when he signed his nine-year, $324 million deal in 2019. He has the chance to hit free agency again in the not-too-distant future if he chooses; Cole can reportedly opt out after the 2024 season.
Seager debuted in Texas last season to mixed reviews, belting a career-best 33 home runs on a career-worst .245 batting average. He could be in for a renaissance, though, thanks to MLB’s new rules on shifting.
Nolan Arenado opted into the final five years and $85 million of his playing contract this offseason, ensuring that his defensive dominance will remain on display at Busch Stadium. In 2022, the star third baseman added his tenth Gold Glove and sixth Platinum glove, all while the Rockies continue to pay a portion of his salary.
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