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TEMPE, Ariz. — Spring Training is less than a month away, and it’s safe to say that a healthy share of the baseball world will descend upon Tempe Diablo Stadium on Feb. 14 for the unveiling of Shohei Ohtani, a two-way player from Japan who is preparing for his highly anticipated Major League debut in 2018.
That’s the day Angels pitchers and catchers are slated to have their first workout, and the Angels are gearing up for the first high-profile two-way player since Babe Ruth and for the daily media crush.
In five seasons with the Nippon-Ham Fighters, the right-hander, whose fastball can reach 100 mph, was 42-15 with a 2.52 ERA and 624 strikeouts in 543 innings. As a left-handed hitter, Ohtani had 48 homers and hit .286.
In Japan, Ohtani was the designated hitter for three games between starts. He pitched every six days, but didn’t hit on the days he pitched. His use in the Major Leagues is still to be determined by the Angels’ baseball-operations staff headed by general manager Billy Eppler and veteran manager Mike Scioscia.
“He’s 23, and we have six years to work him into it,” Angels owner Arte Moreno told MLB.com. “It’s not like he needs to go right in there and pull the wagon. We have a lot of flexibility.”
Ohtani chose the Angels among seven finalists this offseason because of several factors: his relationship with Eppler, his status as the club’s first high-profile Japanese player and the fact that the Angels are an American League club replete with the DH.
There are moving parts, however, and the most interesting is how Albert Pujols will adjust to playing a little more first base to make room for Ohtani as the DH. The 38-year-old Pujols has been limited in a defensive role by foot injuries in recent years.
Last season, he started 149 games, 143 as the DH and only six at first base. He hit 23 homers and knocked in 101 runs.
The last time Pujols played with any sort of regularity at first base was in 2015, when he started 95 games there. He had surgery on his right foot after both the 2015 and ’16 seasons.
The latter surgery, to correct plantar fascia, caused him to miss the start of Spring Training in 2017. He returned in time to play in the season opener but got off to a slow start, with three homers and 22 RBIs in April.
Pujols heads into this season 32 hits short of 3,000, and with 614 home runs, he trails Ken Griffey Jr. by 16 for sixth on the all-time list.
The Angels have Pujols under guaranteed contract through 2021 and owe him $114 million. They had $2.32 million in international slot money to sign Ohtani.
What are the Angels to do? Pujols has been working out all winter in southern California.
“Albert’s taking batting practice right now and has taken infield,” Moreno said. “[Coach Dino Ebel] has been giving him infield [work] and said he looks strong. We won’t know exactly what we’re going to do until we see Albert play. But if we can get him into the field for 40-50 games, then Ohtani’s going to have a lot of opportunity to bat.”
The last time any player regularly pitched and hit in the Major Leagues was 1919, when the left-handed Ruth made 17 starts for the Red Sox on the mound and 116 starts in the outfield and first base. He won nine games and led the Majors with 29 homers, 113 RBIs, 103 runs, a .456 on base percentage, .657 slugging percentage and 1.114 OPS.
Ruth was sold to the Yankees that offseason and was pretty much shut down as a pitcher thereafter. He made five more starts the rest of his career, winning all five and completing four.
The Yankees made the right move. He hit 714 home runs and is the all-time leader in slugging percentage (.690) and OPS (1.164). For those into newer metrics, Ruth is also the all-time leader with a 206 OPS+. One hundred is the mean in that statistic, and last season Pujols had an 81 OPS+.
Hitting and pitching in Nippon Professional Baseball is considered a similar level to Double- or Triple-A, so it will be interesting to see how Ohtani’s skills translate to Major League Baseball. The prospect is exciting.
“We had a press conference at Angels Stadium about a month ago, and it was wild there,” Moreno said. “You can only imagine how crazy it was. He was like a rock star.”
But a regular DH? That remains to be seen.