Sept. 6: Though Tommy John surgery would prevent Ohtani from pitching in 2019, Angels general manager Billy Eppler left no doubt that the Halos still view him as a two-way player in the long run when speaking to reporters in a conference call (link via the OC Register’s Jeff Fletcher).
“We do still see him as a two-way player,” said Eppler. “Shohei has demonstrated the ability to be impactful on both sides of the baseball and that is something that we, and I don’t want to speak for every other team, but I think every team would want impact in the batter’s box and on the mound.”
Eppler didn’t want to commit to the possibility of Ohtani serving as a regular designated hitter for the Angels next year. However, Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports spoke with four surgeons who “regularly repair torn UCLs,” with each expressing the belief that Ohtani can indeed serve as the Angels’ DH next season — even while recovering from Tommy John surgery. Certainly, each case is unique, but Passan’s column provides a detailed walkthrough of just how and why those medical professionals believe it to be possible.
And, if there was any question as to whether Ohtani can make an impact at the plate as his right elbow mends, the 24-year-old may have given the most emphatic answer possible last night; just hours after the announcement that surgery was recommended, Ohtani went 4-for-4 with a pair of home runs, a walk and a stolen base (video link).
Sept. 5: Tommy John surgery has been “recommended” for Angels starter/DH Shohei Ohtani after an MRI revealed additional damage to his ulnar collateral ligament, the club announced (h/t Jeff Fletcher of the Southern California News Group, on Twitter). It is not yet certain whether he will undergo the surgery, but it certainly sounds as if that will be the case.
Ohtani, 24, has amply justified the hype that formed when it became clear he’d be coming to the majors in advance of the 2018 season. Though some questions formed during his showing in Spring Training, Ohtani has been outstanding both on the mound and at the plate.
While Ohtani has continued to knock the cover off the ball since being diagnosed with a second-degree UCL sprain earlier this year, that development led to obvious concern as to his outlook as a pitcher. He was able to make it back for one outing, showing his typical upper-nineties heat before suddenly dropping off in the third inning.
Whether or not the additional UCL damage occurred during the outing, the fact is that Ohtani will almost certainly miss the entirety of the 2019 season — as a pitcher, that is. Typically, position players are able to return from this particular injury on a much shorter timeline.
It’s important to bear in mind here just why Ohtani was put back on the hill late in a season in which the club was already out of contention. Having received platelet-rich plasma and stem cell treatment, and completed a course of rest and rehabilitation, Ohtani was deemed ready to test the ligament. Had Ohtani instead waited until next spring to take the bump, only then to find that it could not withstand full-throttle pitching, then the recovery timeline would have prevented him from hitting for much or all of the 2019 season and perhaps forced his pitching rehab to push into the 2020 campaign.
The good news for the Angels here is that they are still playing with house money so far as Ohtani is concerned. Because he chose to cross the Pacific before he was eligible to sign outside of the existing MLB international spending caps, he has been limited to a relatively meager signing bonus and the MLB minimum salary. The organization still possesses five full seasons of control beyond the present one.
Still, it’s another hugely disappointing injury for an organization that has had more than its fair share of late. Having already dealt with numerous pitching injuries in recent seasons, this year’s Halos roster went without players such as Zack Cozart, Garrett Richards, and Matt Shoemaker for long stretches. While Shoemaker is now back on track to be a factor in 2019, Richards will hit the open market after succumbing to TJS this summer. The Angels’ front office will face a difficult task in putting together a competitive rotation.
Looking ahead for Ohtani, the news will no doubt re-spark the debate as to whether he would be able to perform as both a pitcher and a hitter at the game’s highest level. Some may now wonder whether that effort will be shelved. But it’s frankly hard to imagine either player or team desiring to cut short what has thus far been an unbelievably successful attempt. In his first attempt at the major leagues, Ohtani has turned in 274 plate appearances of .276/.355/.547 hitting, with 16 home runs and six steals, along with 51 2/3 innings of 3.31 ERA pitching, supported by 11.0 K/9 against 3.8 BB/9.
If anything, perhaps, Ohtani and the Halos will need to assess just how to allow him to perform with the bat in 2018 without jeopardizing his throwing rehab. With nearly six months to go before camp opens, there’s plenty of time for a plan to be mapped out. Though we’ll all be robbed of a chance to see Ohtani’s amazing two-way spectacle for the time being, there’s still reason to hope he’ll be able to resume the grand experiment in 2020.