MIAMI – Lars Nootbaar returned to St. Louis Cardinals spring camp Thursday not only with a World Baseball Classic title, but a friendship that has some holding hope the franchise could eventually land a baseball sensation.

Nootbaar and Team Japan capped a perfect run in the 2023 World Baseball Classic on Tuesday with a 3-2 victory Tuesday over the United States for their third tournament championship.

The Cardinals’ outfielder jump-started and extended many rallies in Japan’s latest run, driving in four runs, scoring seven times and enjoying a .424 OBP. Nootbaar also drove in an early go-ahead run in the WBC Final to give Japan a lead they would not relinquish.

Nootbaar, one of few MLB players on Team Japan, took advantage of the spotlight and built an intriguing bond in the process. Highlights throughout the tournament show Nootbaar sharing laughs and celebrating accomplishments with phenom Shohei Ohtani, one of few players in MLB history to exceed as a hitter and pitcher at the same time.

“It almost seems like I’m shortchanging him, saying he’s once in a generation. It’s lifetime,” said Nootbaar on Ohtani via a report.

Ohtani’s decorated resume includes an MVP and MVP runner-up honors, a Silver Slugger Award at DH and a fourth-place Cy Young finish over the last two seasons. At a full-season, 162-game pace, Ohtani has averaged around 36 home runs, 98 RBI, 19 stolen bases and a .267 batting average as a hitter, in addition to a 15-8 record, 2.96 ERA, 189 innings pitched and 238 strikeouts as a pitcher. He can do it all, and better than most pitchers and hitters can individually.

The 28-year-old kept his dominant stretch rolling in the World Baseball Classic with .435 batting average, one home run and 8 RBIs as a hitter, along with two victories, one save and a 1.86 ERA over 9.2 innings pitched. He ranked among the top performers in many offensive and pitching stats for the tournament, and easily earned WBC MVP honors.

Ohtani’s signature moment came when he struck out Los Angeles Angels teammate, USA outfielder and three-time MVP Mike Trout for the final out of the 2023 WBC Championship. “This is the best moment in my life,” Ohtani said through a translator on the WBC championship, via the Associated Press. He also set the table for a walk-off rally in the WBC semifinals, producing a leadoff double in the ninth inning with Japan on the brink of elimination.

While delivering in big moments, Ohtani was spotted several times doing a pepper-grinder motion, a celebration that Nootbaar encouraged Cardinals teammates to partake in last year when players came up with big hits and grinded out tough at-bats. Nootbaar and Ohtani also enjoyed a giant hug after Japan’s victory over Mexico and an iconic selfie following Tuesday’s championship.

The tournament was such a great experience for both that Nootbaar reportedly already promised Ohtani that he would return to the WBC stage in 2026.

What else could Nootbaar and Ohtani’s friendship mean? It depends on how much you read into the situation, but it seems some baseball fans around Twitter have hope that Ohtani might someday join Nootbaar in St. Louis. Popular MLB podcast “Talkin’ Baseball” seems convinced, quoting a video of Ohtani and Nootbaar with the text: “Yeah he’s a Cardinal.”

Ohtani is set to become a free agent this winter if he doesn’t agree to a new contract with the Angels. Because of his two-way skill set, baseball enthusiasts believe Ohtani could fetch a contract worth at least half a billion dollars next offseason. If so, that would make him the first player to reach such a figure.

The Cardinals have historically proceeded with caution in an era where many teams (New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies, San Diego Padres) have thrown hundreds of millions of dollars at free agents. St. Louis’ largest free agent signing to date, for someone who hadn’t previously played with the Cardinals, was Willson Contreras last offseason to a five-year, $87.5 million deal. That and never awarding more than $140 million to any player (Paul Goldschmidt) makes it seem unlikely that the franchise would suddenly make a big free agent splash on Ohtani.

That said, it’s hard to completely rule the Cardinals out of the Ohtani sweepstakes for the future, especially when a generational talent could join a team looking to squeeze a few more top-notch years out of veterans Goldschmidt, Contreras and Nolan Arenado. Ohtani would be 29 years old by the time he hits the open market, an age where it’s definitely plausible for several more athletic prime years.

Fans have been following Ohtani’s future so closely that there are already gambling odds as to where he might end up next if he departs from the Angels.

  • doesn’t have the Cardinals within the top quarter of teams in landing odds and heavily favors the New York Mets as a landing spot.
  • ranked the Cardinals within the Top 10 teams most likely to pursue Ohtani, but called that possibility a “long shot.” It actually gives the cross-state rival Chicago Cubs the second-best odds of Ohtani.
  • analysts rank the Cardinals 11th out of 30th in teams most likely to land Ohtani next offseason.

If not through free agency, perhaps teams could consider trying to win Ohtani through the trade market this year. The Angels have not made the postseason for eight years, tied for MLB’s longest drought, and might be forced with a tough decision to trade Ohtani for something if they struggle early on again.

Ohtani, last year when asked about his standing with the Angels around trade deadline, said through an interpreter, “I’m with the Angels right now, and I’m very thankful for what they’ve done. I love my team and my teammates. Right now I’m an Angel, and that’s all I can focus on.”

All things considered, Nootbaar’s chemistry with Ohtani certainly doesn’t hurt the Cardinals in a potential push for the baseball sensation, though history shows the dream scenario would most likely be dependent on a wait-and-see basis.

Ohtani is preparing to start on the mound for the Angels on Opening Day next week and will regularly serve as a designated hitter on days he doesn’t pitch. Nootbaar is expected to run with a starting outfield job and possibly a leadoff batting spot for the Cardinals to start the 2023 MLB campaign. Opening Day is exactly one week from Thursday.