Tomase: Red Sox' best bet in Ohtani sweepstakes? Win more games

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Of all the reasons the Red Sox can't afford another last-place finish, this might be the biggest: Shohei Ohtani.

Baseball's best two-way player since Babe Ruth, the dual Cy Young/MVP threat can become a free agent in the fall, and he doesn't appear inclined to sign an extension with the Angels anytime soon.

Maybe that's because in September he laid out his priorities, noting that he loved his teammates and fans, "but more than that, I want to win. That's the biggest thing for me, so I'll leave it at that."

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If the Red Sox intend to enter the Ohtani sweepstakes this fall, it will take more than money to get his attention, and that's assuming they're even willing to pay. The bidding is expected to start at $500 million for the 28-year-old, who slammed 34 homers last year while posting a 2.33 ERA in 28 starts.

The Red Sox need to prove they can win, and the odds feel stacked against them, what with the lack of impact talent at the big league level, the fact that their best prospects remain at least two years away, and the instant deficit they face just making their home in the brutal American League East.

If Ohtani can't sniff the playoffs in the weaker AL West alongside three-time MVP Mike Trout, what motivation would he have to come to a Red Sox team that features Rafael Devers and not much else, especially if it repeats last year's last-place finish?

The answer is zero, which lends an added layer of importance to ensuring this isn't another lost season. The way the Red Sox have approached free agency under Chaim Bloom, it's doubtful they'd even allocate the resources to sign baseball's unicorn, but if they fail to give Ohtani a team worth considering, it won't matter.

After all, the clubs expected to court him aggressively are deep-pocketed contenders. This top tier includes the Dodgers, Mets, Yankees, Padres, and Phillies. The Red Sox don't seem inclined to compete from a spending perspective, and they certainly don't measure up on the field.

Ohtani carefully avoided addressing his future when he met the media in Arizona on Thursday, saying simply, "as of now, I'm an Angel, and that's all I'm going to focus on. I haven't really thought too far ahead."

If there's any glimmer of hope, it's that the Red Sox spent over $300 million to extend Devers, so they've opened their wallets for someone. But compare that single extension to the profligate Padres ($300 million for Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr.; nearly as much for Xander Bogaerts), or the mega-contracts the Phillies handed Bryce Harper and Trea Turner, or the way Mets owner Steve Cohen seems determined to spend a billion dollars just because, and it's hard to envision the Red Sox winning a bidding war with any of them.

The days of hunting every big free agent from Alex Rodriguez to Mark Teixeira to Matt Holliday feel like another lifetime ago, even though landing Ohtani would do more to win back a restless fan base than open bar at 1,000 Winter Weekends. He's the only player capable of giving the organization a hard reset, and considering the state of interest in the team, $500 million may be a small price for John Henry to pay.

But first things first, the Red Sox have to prove to Ohtani that they're worth his time. If winning really matters to him, another last-place finish would be doubly disastrous.

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