Indications are the Angels will use something resembling a six-man rotation to begin next season, a marked departure from orthodoxy and something that general manager Billy Eppler framed Tuesday as a sort of moral imperative.
Eppler has entertained the idea for years now, and nearly attempted it in September 2016. Friday’s surprise signing of Japanese two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani injected some urgency, as the 23-year-old Ohtani never pitched more than once a week in Nippon Professional Baseball.
Now the Angels must decipher how to maximize his value and minimize his injury risk while keeping the rest of their staff healthy and content.
“We’ve given a ton of thought to it,” Eppler said on the second day of baseball’s winter meetings, held at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort. “A lot.”
Exemplifying that injury risk, Yahoo Sports reported Tuesday that Ohtani was diagnosed with a small, first-degree tear within the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. While first-degree tears sometimes lead to Tommy John surgery, they do not necessitate it, and Eppler said multiple MRI exams the Angels administered last week showed “no signs of acute or new trauma” in Ohtani’s elbow.
In October, Ohtani received a platelet-rich plasma injection in the elbow, which Yahoo reported was intended to heal discomfort. Such injections require pitchers to rest for several weeks before resuming throwing. Ohtani has already played catch this week in Japan.
“His elbow looked consistent with pitchers at his age and usage level,” Eppler said in a text message. “We were pleased with the results of the physical and we are happy to have the player.”
The tear will amplify the pressure on the Angels as they attempt to keep their prize acquisition off the disabled list. To comfortably space Ohtani’s starts, Eppler acknowledged that a blend between a five-man and six-man rotation could be the ideal route. If, in a given month, increased off days in the schedule would provide Ohtani ample rest, he could start every five games. And, if they wouldn’t, the Angels could skip him once or twice. That plan could entail Parker Bridwell shuffling between the majors and triple A or the disabled list at 10- or 15-day intervals.
Still, the prospect of traversing a season with a six-man rotation and without drama feels unlikely. Over the weekend, manager Mike Scioscia bristled at questions about the likely size of his rotation.
“We will have a starter every game,” he would only say.
Polled, many pitchers prefer to stick to their routines, particularly because the arbitration process rewards innings and wins, and starting less could limit both. Eppler argued Tuesday that the industry has adapted, that fewer starts won’t hamper a pitcher’s free-agent market, that his perspective is in their best interest.
“It’s coming from a good place,” Eppler said. “I’ll sleep well at night knowing I’m doing right by our athletes. And if somebody disagrees, then I’ll have the conversation with them, because I owe it to them as a professional. It is their career, I understand that. And if they want to take risks and we can present evidence and they still want to take risks, then, you know what, that’s for them.
“But I’m gonna do morally what I think’s right.”
He continued to make that case when prodded, arguing that starting pitchers rarely feel great on the days they start. A six-man rotation could change that.
“We’re tasked with doing what we feel is best for the long-term health of our players,” Eppler said. “That’s an important thing to me. You’re striking a chord of my DNA: I’m not putting players at risk. And if there’s a methodology that can help players out, then you know what, we’re gonna present it to them. Because I feel I have a moral responsibility to that. But that’s just me.”
Asked what he would do if one or more pitchers preferred to remain on a five-day schedule, Eppler cited “reputable doctors and biomechanists” who argue that a six-day schedule would be advantageous for recovery.
“I’ll defer to the people who’ve dedicated their life’s work,” Eppler said. “But it will be a fluid conversation, and I will want the input of everybody that’s involved. That includes the players.”
Eppler confirmed that Ohtani will not hit on the days he starts, and said the Angels have not discussed where Ohtani will hit when he starts at designated hitter. But he implied that it will be low in the lineup, at least at first.
“With everything we do with him,” Eppler said, “we’re gonna walk before we run.”
Minutes after Eppler spoke inside his suite here, Ohtani’s agent, Nez Balelo, knocked on his door. The outlining of baseball’s most anticipated rookie season in recent memory continues.
Follow Pedro Moura on Twitter @pedromoura