Although there are a number of outstanding questions surrounding Shohei Ohtani and his unusual/exciting free agent journey, the most intriguing is whether he’ll pitch, pitch and hit (DH), or pitch, hit, and field with his new team in MLB.
To be sure, he’s done all three in Japan – and to much success, as his nickname, the Japanese Babe Ruth, alludes – but, obviously, the competition in the Major Leagues (including, potentially, on his own team) makes things a lot trickier.
To that end, two things have emerged from the fog: 1. Ohtani would like a chance to hit in the Major Leagues, and 2. a team’s ability to provide that opportunity may factor into his free agent decision.
“As a pitcher, a part of me believes I can make it moving forward, but I also have confidence that I can continue on as I have been (batting),” Ohtani said to Kyodo News. Ohtani hasn’t really played the field since his rookie year in NPB, according to KN, but he has obviously DH’ed quite a bit over the years. In fact, in 2016, he went to NPB’s version of the All-Star game as both a pitcher and a DH (the first player to ever accomplish that).
Ohtani later admitted that he doesn’t know if the environment of the Major Leagues will really lend itself to a two-way player, but he does remind us that it didn’t exist before he went pro in Japan either (damn … gotta love that confidence).
And here’s where things get a little more interesting/specific: “If I can’t find the right environment, I won’t be able to take on that challenge. I can’t do it on desire alone.” It sounds like, to me, Ohtani is very serious about finding a team that’ll allow him to both pitch and hit as soon as 2018. Obviously, that makes things trickier in the National League (which labors on without a DH), but not entirely out of the question.
“Indeed, some National League teams that cannot use a designated hitter,” writes Jim Allen of Kyudo News, “have talked about putting him at first base or in the outfield.” The general consensus is that his arm is more valuable than his bat, but the latter could be serious value-adder.
As a matter of fact, that value is a lot further away from zero than we may have previously guessed.
Over at ESPN, Dan Szymborski just released Ohtani’s ZiPS projections for the next six years and it’s definitely something you’ll want to check out. You have to be an ESPN Insider to get full access, so we’ll just take a peak at what he might offer in 2018.
As a 23-year-old starting pitcher, ZiPS is projecting 3.3 WAR from Ohtani next season, though that comes with a few very big caveats. First, 3.3 WAR from a rookie, 23-year-old starter may not be Cy Young caliber, but it’s still really impressive. Second, that total is projected over just 139.1 IP. Apparently, ZiPS was a little gun-shy by the low inning totals this season thanks to a couple injuries, but by all accounts Ohtani (who twice suffered non-arm related injuries this year) should throw many more than that. Indeed, as Szymborski puts it, “that’s a legit No. 2 starter in the majors or an ace who falls shy of the elite tier.”
And then, of course, there’s the “small” fact that Ohtani is also a quality hitter. Not just like a good-hitting pitcher, an actual, quality Major League hitter (projected). In the National League, ZiPS projects his bat to be worth somewhere between 1.4 – 2.2 additional WAR (depending on how many chances he gets and if he’s DHing, hitting in the outfield, hitting on days he pitches, etc.). So, suddenly, you’re looking an overall 23-year-old worth something above 5 WAR in his rookie season – and if you didn’t already guess it, yes, he’s expected to improve as he ages into his prime.
As for his realistic positions, the Cubs still have some problems. First base is and will belong to Anthony Rizzo for the foreseeable future, while the corner outfield spots are taken up by some combination of Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ, and Ben Zobrist. Thus, the Cubs’ ability to sway Ohtani to Chicago is going to be quite a tall order if he’s committed to hitting on the days he doesn’t pitch.
If you’re feeling optimistic, sure, the Cubs do have perhaps the most creative manager in baseball, Joe Maddon, and the potential to unload at least some of that outfield logjam in a big trade this winter. But while the Cubs’ odds of landing Ohtani are definitely non-zero, they still can’t be viewed as that much better than any other team, particularly when you consider they are capped at an offer of a $300,000 bonus.