Any decisions the Angels make regarding Shohei Ohtani will be based on their internal assessments of the aspiring pitcher-hitter and not on any external pressure they might feel to include him on their opening-day roster or shoehorn him into a two-way role.
“In our universe, we are evaluating this in a vacuum,” Angels general manager Billy Eppler said Friday. “Is this 23-year-old prospect ready to make an impact on both sides of the ball?”
Ohtani, touted as the “Babe Ruth of Japan,” has struggled so much on both sides of the ball this spring that there is growing speculation he might open the season in the minor leagues.
The right-hander looked dominant during a scoreless first inning in Friday’s 18-6 loss to the Colorado Rockies at Tempe Diablo Stadium, striking out DJ LeMahieu looking with a nasty breaking ball and Trevor Story with a 98-mph fastball.
Then he was unable to complete a second inning in which he was rocked for seven runs and six hits, including Ian Desmond’s leadoff homer and Nolan Arenado’s three-run shot. His start cut to 50 pitches, Ohtani threw another 25-30 pitches in the bullpen to build his stamina.
“You saw some electric stuff and then you saw some inconsistency,” manager Mike Scioscia said. “His stuff is picking up, which is a good sign. Harnessing it is what we’re going to have to work on.”
The left-handed-hitting Ohtani is batting .100 (two for 20) with little quality to his at-bats. His feet are unsettled at times, he looks uncomfortable in the box, and he has struggled to handle inside fastballs and breaking pitches.
“With his tool package, his ability and his athleticism, he’s an elite-level prospect,” Eppler said. “He’s not a finished product. Players who are 23 rarely are. They tend to peak at age 25 or 26 to 30.”
So where does that leave Ohtani this spring? Asked if it’s possible Ohtani could start in the minor leagues, Scioscia said, “You’re asking the wrong guy.” Pitching coach Charles Nagy was asked how confident he was that Ohtani can pitch in the big leagues in two weeks. “That’s not up to me to decide.”
The man who will make that ultimate decision plans to treat Ohtani like other top prospects who are trying to break into the big leagues for the first time.
“He has performed at the highest level that is not major league baseball — those are the only knowns,” Eppler said. “It’s just like a club that is sitting on another elite prospect who has dominated at triple-A level and hasn’t played in the big leagues yet.
“That club knows that player has dominated a level as close to the major leagues domestically as it can get. We view [Japan’s Pacific League] as a very good league. We’ve seen players who have dominated that league have an impact over here.”
Eppler said the Angels have given no assurances to Ohtani that he will be on the opening-day roster. One benefit to the Angels by starting Ohtani at triple-A Salt Lake and keeping him there for the first 15 days of the major league season is that it would push his free agency back by a year.
The Angels switched to a six-man rotation to keep Ohtani closer to the once-a-week pitching schedule he was comfortable with in Japan. They’re expected to carry only three bench players in anticipation of Ohtani starting at designated hitter two or more days a week.
If Ohtani is ready to pitch in the big leagues but not quite ready to hit, it could throw both of those plans out of whack.
“It’s too early to make a judgment right now,” Eppler said. “I know there’s an inherent human desire to want to know. We’re intellectually curious. But often times, you have to allow things to develop a little bit before getting to that point of trying to figure something out.”
Ohtani clearly has the stuff to pitch in the big leagues, but in 8 1/3 innings of two Cactus League games, a B game against minor leaguers and an exhibition against the Tijuana Toros, Ohtani has surrendered 15 earned runs and 18 hits, including four homers, for a 16.20 ERA. He has struck out 19 and walked three.
“We’re looking at results through a different lens than a lot of you guys,” Scioscia said. “We’re looking at his pitch execution. If that’s a little off, was it a mechanical issue, a release-point issue? Spin rates, things like that. We’re not measuring him on ERA, how many guys he strikes out.”
Eppler remains encouraged by Ohtani’s determination, his commitment to the game and the way the Angels have embraced their new teammate.
“It feels to me like there are a lot of guys pulling for him because they see the passion, the work ethic, the drive,” Eppler said. “This is not a gimmick right? They see that this is real. As they’ve gotten to know him, they feel his passion.”