The Angels pulled off a massive surprise Friday, earning the commitment of Japan’s Shohei Ohtani, one of the most widely wooed prospects in baseball history.
Ohtani, a pitcher with a triple-digit fastball and hitter with tape-measure power, agreed to sign with the Angels for relative peanuts, a decision that could alter the franchise’s course for years to come. They could slot him atop their starting rotation and in the middle of their batting order.
The mysterious process of pursuing the 23-year-old became an all-out sweepstakes this offseason, with nearly every Major League Baseball team involved. None knew exactly what Ohtani sought in his destination. For months, many league executives privately expressed beliefs that high-profile teams such as the Dodgers or New York Yankees would be the favorites.
Instead, when Ohtani was officially made available one week ago, several of his finalists were small-market clubs, and most were located on the West Coast. The Angels survived Sunday’s first cut to seven teams. On Monday, club representatives met with him in Los Angeles, making a two-hour pitch.
On Friday, six years to the day after the Angels signed Albert Pujols, Ohtani picked them. The Angels announced in a statement they were “honored” to welcome him into their organization.
“We felt a unique connectivity with him throughout the process and are excited he will become an Angel,” it read. “This is a special time for Angels fans, the Ohtani family, and Nez Balelo and the team at Creative Artists Agency.”
Balelo is Ohtani’s agent. An Angels spokesman said the club would not make further official comments beyond the statement. However, the club could hold an introductory news conference at Angel Stadium as soon as Saturday.
The Angels are expected to pay Ohtani a $2.315-million signing bonus, most of which they acquired within the last week via trades. They will also send a $20-million posting fee to the Nippon-Ham Fighters, Ohtani’s former Japanese team.
Had he waited to come to MLB in two more years, at 25, Ohtani might have netted a guaranteed contract of about $200 million for six or seven seasons, league executives estimated. By coming now, he was limited to earning a maximum $3.5-million bonus and he is guaranteed a salary of no more than the major league minimum of $545,000 for the next three years.
That’s substantial value for the Angels. But there is risk, too. No major league player has started 15 or more games on the mound and in the field since 1924. That’s because the stress of pitching necessitates recovery time. Balancing that with training as a hitter and in-game appearances will be difficult. It will test manager Mike Scioscia’s agility in his 19th season on the job.
Ohtani is a right-handed pitcher. His fastball hums up to 100 mph, and, as complements, he wields a slider, splitter and curve. A speedy left-handed hitter, his power is prodigious. He wants to do it all in the majors and the Angels are willing to let him try. Exactly how that will work remains uncertain.
Ohtani’s career-high for innings pitched is 160 2/3, for plate appearances 382. Hindered by an ankle injury last season, he threw only 25 1/3 innings and batted 231 times. If he remains healthy, he could be the Angels’ designated hitter on some days he does not pitch. Pujols held down the DH role in 2017, so Ohtani’s presence could require him to play first base or move him to the bench.
This is the first offseason in three years Pujols has not required foot surgery, and he started his workout regimen more than a month ago. He hopes to be in better shape at the start of spring training, which would prepare him to play the field more.
In Japan, Ohtani pitched once a week, as is traditional in Nippon Professional Baseball. Upon Japanese pitchers’ arrival in recent years, some major league teams have tried to replicate that structure.
One way the Angels could do that is with a six-man starting rotation, which general manager Billy Eppler has long expressed interest in trying. With off days, that would supply Ohtani a schedule he is accustomed to, and it could benefit the rest of the Angels’ rotation. Most of their starters were injured during an 80-win 2017 season.
Like many baseball executives, Eppler has long held his gaze on Ohtani. During visits to Japan as an assistant general manager for the Yankees, Eppler scouted the then-teenager. Since he was hired as the Angels’ general manager in October 2015, Eppler went back and observed him at least once, although not at all in 2017.
In a statement announcing the decision, Ohtani’s agent said the player determined the Angels were the best fit.