- Shohei Ohtani was one of the gems of this year's free agent class. He's headed to Orange County, and the Angels may already be the biggest winners of the offseason.
There are two ways to break down the Angels winning the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes. The first is a measured, rational and studious examination on just how Ohtani will impact Los Angeles’ roster. The second is to allow yourself a minute—at least 60 uninterrupted seconds—to process the glorious union of Mike Trout, the best baseball player in the entire world, and Ohtani, a potentially generational talent and franchise-altering player. So before we move on to the numbers, roster fit and all that other stuff, let’s all sit for a moment and enjoy not only that Ohtani is finally coming to MLB, but also that he’ll do so alongside its resident superman.
Done? Okay, let’s dig in.
It’s hard to overstate how much of a coup landing Ohtani is for the Angels. The two-way superstar from Japan is young; he turns 24 in July. He’s cheap; he’ll sign for at most $2.3 million, plus the $20 million posting fee Los Angeles will pay his old team, the Nippon Ham Fighters. His stuff on the mound is elite; his fastball touches 102 mph to go alongside a weapons-grade split-finger fastball and slider. And, despite the sizable grain of salt that accompanies the stats from any foreign league, he dominated NPB both on the mound (a 2.52 ERA and 10.3 strikeouts per nine across 543 innings in five seasons) and at the plate (.286/.358/.500 in 1,170 plate appearances). He also has impressive raw power from the left side and a home-to-first time of 3.9 seconds. He can do, literally, everything.
Ohtani is a player to dream on with room to grow, and even if he doesn’t come close to his staggeringly high ceiling, the Angels will have spent less on him than the Cubs will on Tyler Chatwood. There’s no way to call that anything but a win for general manager Billy Eppler and company.
For Ohtani, the choice was the Angels over six other suitors: the Mariners, Giants, Dodgers, Padres, Cubs and Rangers. With money not a factor thanks to his status as an international amateur, his decision was more on the level of a five-star college recruit picking a school, as each team was evaluated for its strengths and weaknesses. But while all seven of the finalists had their draws and were apparently willing to allow him to pursue being a two-way player, the Angels won out for reasons that—as Ohtani’s agent, Nez Balelo, put it—border on the spiritual (fittingly, given the team):
While there has been much speculation about what would drive Shohei’s decision, what mattered to him most wasn’t market size, time zone or league, but that he felt a true bond with the Angels. He sees this as the best environment to develop and reach the next level and attain his career goals.
There’s plenty to like for Ohtani in Orange County. There’s the presence of Trout, who singlehandedly makes the Angels a functioning team and desirable destination. Anaheim meets Ohtani’s desire for a West Coast team, and situated as it is in the Dodgers’ shadow, it’s a team with a far smaller spotlight on it. The media attention will be intense, but that would have been the case no matter where Ohtani had gone. And roster-wise, the Angels make sense for him: He instantly becomes the ace of their thin rotation, and he can slot in the outfield or at designated hitter as needed offensively.
The latter situation will take some finagling due to Albert Pujols, the Angels’ regular DH. Once the game’s best player, Pujols hits like Alcides Escobar, can no longer play the field and is owed a gag-inducing $114 over the next four years. Ohtani can play the field (primarily in right), but he hasn’t done so since 2014; he was mostly a DH in his short Japanese career. But that may work to the Angels’ advantage, as Ohtani wasn’t a full-time hitter in Japan; he took two days off during the week to prepare for his starts and was a DH the rest of the time. As such, the Angels will likely only play Ohtani at DH a couple of times a week to begin his career, allowing him to get acclimated to the majors.
There are other options, too. Ohtani can spot for Justin Upton in left and Kole Calhoun in right. The Angels could explore having him learn to play first base, a position at which they have no long-term solutions. Or they could forego the DH on days he pitches, allowing him to hit for himself as if he were in the National League. Regardless, he offers them plenty of flexibility so as to find the optimal way to use him.
That will be key, because even with his talent, Ohtani’s adjustment will be immense. First and most important will be having to pitch every five days as opposed to every six, as starters are used in Japan. Barring the Angels going to a six-man rotation, Ohtani will have to learn how to manage with less rest and recovery between starts (as well as without the usual Monday off-day that NPB has). How much will be asked of him on the mound remains to be seen, but he threw only 25 1/3 innings for the Fighters in 2017 due to various injuries and has never gone past 160 2/3 in a season, so Los Angeles will have to manage his workload carefully. Ohtani is also more developed as a hurler than a hitter; there’s a chance his two-way dreams fall apart upon first contact with MLB pitching.
But for all of those caveats, Ohtani still stands to make a massive impact on the Angels, even if it’s just with his arm. It’s hard to overstate just how weak the Angels’ rotation is, reduced as it was last year to the likes of Ricky Nolasco and Jesse Chavez. Injuries ruined Los Angeles’ stable of starters, sidelining Garrett Richards, Matt Shoemaker, Tyler Skaggs and Andrew Heaney for long stretches. Before Ohtani, the Angels were counting on returns to health for most of that group in order to contend in 2017. But Ohtani can do for that staff what Trout has been doing for the lineup. And there’s also the boost he could provide, even if only a couple of days a week, at DH over the decaying Pujols.
The Angels can’t stop here, though. Providence and the hideously restrictive state of amateur contracts in MLB have gifted them two super-talents for next to nothing financially. A team that won 80 games last year and has missed the playoffs the last three seasons should, thanks to Ohtani, now be a real contender, if not in the AL West then at least for the wild card. But that’s contingent on the Angels taking advantage of this. The rotation still needs more help; go sign Jake Arrieta. First base is a smoking crater; Logan Morrison or Carlos Santana would fit nicely there. No self-respecting team should live with Martin Maldonado at catcher, Kaleb Cowart at second base or Luis Valbuena at third; Jonathan Lucroy, Neil Walker and Mike Moustakas are standing by. And a bullpen without a set closer would look far better with Greg Holland or Wade Davis in the ninth inning than holdovers Blake Parker or Keynan Middleton.
Ohtani is manna from heaven, but the Angels can’t be content with just him. More than anything else, the advantage he gives you is financial—the room to add talent without breaking the budget, which is an issue the Angels have struggled with devoting a sixth of their payroll to Pujols six years ago. Ohtani is as enviable an offseason starting point as any team could want, but that’s still what he is—a starting point. The Angels have to learn from the mistakes they made in not surrounding Trout with talent and wasting six of the best years any player has ever produced. Once again, the Angels are being given an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Hopefully this time, they can deliver on it.
But if nothing else, Ohtani is here, and that’s worth celebrating no matter what team he had ended up with (though pour one out for Jerry Dipoto and the Mariners, who strove so hard to get him and ended up losing him to a division rival—as well as with $3.5 million in international bonus money earmarked for him that they might as well now burn). For weeks and months if not years, baseball fans have dreamed of seeing what Ohtani could do at the highest level of competition. Finally, we’ll get a chance to see him in action, and even if the reality doesn’t match the dream of him and Trout uniting like Voltron, there’s still plenty of reason to be excited about what he can do—and what they can accomplish together.