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Column: It’s anyone’s guess what Angels’ two-way star Shohei Ohtani’s future is

Angels' two-way star Shohei Ohtani walks to the dugout after striking out against the Oakland Athletics on Oct. 5, 2022.
Without a contract extension, Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani will be a free agent after the 2023 season.
(Godofredo A. Vásquez / Associated Press)
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Everyone has theories about Shohei Ohtani.

Such as how he doesn’t like the cold.

Or that he appreciates how the Angels make relatively few demands of him outside of playing baseball and might be reluctant to play for a team that wants more from a franchise player.

Or that he doesn’t care about money. Or that he actually does. Or that maybe he really doesn’t but the people around him do.

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The speculation isn’t entirely unfounded, each of these premises backed by an anecdote or two passed along by people in his orbit.

As of now, that’s all there is to go on when guessing where the 28-year-old Ohtani could sign after he becomes a free agent at the conclusion of the upcoming season.

With a small army of Japanese reporters chronicling his daily workouts, there isn’t a player in baseball who is as closely followed as Ohtani. There also isn’t a player who is as great a mystery as him.

Other Angels players share stories about his playful disposition, coaches marvel at his diligence and team officials boast of his openness to new ideas, but no one seems to have any idea of what he’s really thinking.

This isn’t just about a language barrier.

There are Japanese reporters who have covered Ohtani for more than a decade and even they often wonder who has influence over him — or whether there’s anyone who does.

Ohtani is an enigma by design, most of his interactions with the media unfolding the way his news conference did at the Angels’ spring training complex Thursday when he spoke for the first time this camp.

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Asked if he would be open to signing a contract extension with the Angels, he said in Japanese, “I understand it’s the last year. I don’t know what’s going to happen. At the current stage, of course, I’m employed by the Angels and my feelings of wanting to win a championship with this team are foremost.”

Ohtani spoke for 27 minutes and about the only candid answer he provided came in response to a question by Shuzo Matsuoka.

The first Japanese tennis player to win a singles event on the ATP Tour, the now-55-year-old Matsuoka was at Tempe Diablo Stadium’s backfields as a reporter for TV Asahi. Matsuoka tossed Ohtani a couple of softballs about the upcoming World Baseball Classic, then asked him to compare the positive aspects of American and Japanese baseball. Ohtani’s response was surprisingly blunt.

“The No. 1 difference is the level,” Ohtani said. “That can’t be changed. I came here thinking I wanted to play at a high level, and once I did, I thought it really was [higher] and that I was glad I came.”

American readers might think Ohtani stated the obvious, but his answer strayed from the lip service typically offered by Japanese players in the major leagues, who describe American baseball as different rather than better. Matsuoka almost certainly wasn’t looking for the answer Ohtani gave him.

Then again, Ohtani is prone to sudden bursts of honesty like this.

Before the All-Star Game last year, he spoke about his Hall of Fame ambitions and desire to play in the World Baseball Classic.

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When he won the American League MVP award in 2021, he acknowledged that he thought the Angels were trying to send him a message when they approached him about eliminating the days off that were previously built into his schedule.

Angels right-hander Shohei Ohtani pitches against the Minnesota Twins on Sept. 23, 2022, in Minneapolis.
Angels right-hander Shohei Ohtani pitches against the Minnesota Twins on Sept. 23, 2022, in Minneapolis.
(Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press)

“There was a feeling that if this didn’t take the right form to a certain degree,” Ohtani said then, “it would be necessary to reconsider what I was doing.”

In other words, he believed that if he couldn’t succeed as a full-time two-way player, the Angels would try to turn him into a full-time hitter.

Because his interviews usually consist of benign platitudes, on the rare occasions Ohtani makes declarative statements, they take an oversized role in shaping the public’s perception of him.

The most notable example of this was late in the 2021 season when he became frustrated by how much the Angels were losing.

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“I like the fans,” he said. “I like the atmosphere in the organization. But my feelings of wanting to win are stronger.”

The widespread opinion that Ohtani will leave the Angels next winter can be attributed almost entirely to that statement.

Ohtani has said little since then to change that view.

He was evasive on virtually every subject Thursday, sounding like a Japanese Chase Utley as he exerted more effort to dodge questions than would have been required to just answer them. Ohtani refused even to say how important the WBC was to him. (The tournament doesn’t start for another three weeks and is already a daily cover story in the Japanese sports pages.)

He was especially guarded about his future, which probably reinforced the perception that he will be playing elsewhere next year.

Did Ohtani think the Angels were positioned to win this season or in the future?

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“I’m not the person to ask about that,” Ohtani said. “I think you should ask [general manager] Perry [Minasian]. He would he would know best.”

Did Ohtani think the Angels were as desperate to win as he was?

“I believe they are showing that,” he replied. “I think everyone is thinking [they want to win]. Of course, you don’t know what other people are really feeling.”

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Especially when that other person is Ohtani.

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