The Sho-Hei Must Go On

Sometime last August, when the 2023 MLB schedule was announced, I circled this weekend’s series between the Mets and Angels at New York’s Citi Field as one that I had to be at, somehow.  After all, I was fortunate and solvent enough to attend all three games that the teams played at Angels Stadium in 2022, a weekend series that actually ended with seats behind home plate with a longtime friend.  At that time, the Angels were struggling, but the Mets were on their way to 101 wins and a post-season berth that at that point looked like it would be a deep run into October.  The Mets won two of three, the middle game a loss that a new friend who lives and dies with the Angels was thrilled to see, as he hadn’t gotten to see his beloved Angels much in recent years between work and pandemic concerns.  From my vantage point, that was three wins.

And truth be told, I’m as big a booster of Angels megastar Shohei Ohtani as anyone, ever since I went to my first Angels game in several years early in the still socially distanced 2021 schedule where a sudden chill took over a late afternoon makeup game for an earlier game I had tickets for that needed to be made up as part of a seven inning doubleheader.  The shortened game was a first for me, the Angels won, and the team literally gave me a leftover Ohtani blanket to warm my bare legs as a thank you for my support.    I had hoped if I could find a way to the New York area this weekend I might even have a chance to see Ohtani pitch, which is still on my bucket list.

Well, as any Angels or Mets fan will tell you, things have changed.  Both teams collapsed over the summer, both are all but mathematically eliminated from post-season contention.  Ohtani had to have several rotation appearances moved around by weather and potential injury concerns of late, so he wouldn’t have pitched against the Mets this weekend anyhow; his most recent start happened Wednesday afternoon in a Hurricane Hillary makeup game against Cincinnati.  When, as CBS SPORTS’ R.J. Anderson reported, the worst possible outcome ensued:

(T)wo-way phenom Shohei Ohtani departed his start Wednesday against the Cincinnati Reds alongside a trainer with what the team called “arm fatigue.” Hours later, Angels general manager Perry Minasian told reporters that Ohtani has a tear in his UCL and will not pitch the remainder of the 2023 MLB season. Minasian said it was not yet known whether surgery will be necessary for Ohtani.

Ohtani will at least be able to finish the 2023 season as the Angels’ DH, and plans to be in uniform in New York this weekend.  He did hit his 44th home run in Wednesday’s nightcap loss to the Reds, and enters just three home runs short of the team record set by Troy Glaus in 2000.  He also could be one of a handful of major leaguers this year who will hit .300.

But as the possibility of his free agency looms, one that looms all the more dire for Angels fans after they elected not to trade him at the end of last month in what has turned out to be a mistaken quest for a post-season berth, the question that now clouds the on-field action is: how much will that UCL injury cost him financially, and who has the huevos to still take the risk?

THE ATHLETIC’s Cody Stavenhagen and Sam Blum pondered this at length in a piece that dropped yesterday, and raised these concerns to the surface:

How committed is Ohtani to remaining a two-way player?

Ohtani has yet to speak publicly since the UCL tear, but history tells us he’s likely to do everything in his power to continue both pitching and hitting. Ohtani once desired to come to the big leagues out of high school. Had that happened, he might never have become the two-way player we know today. Ohtani ultimately stayed in Japan and thrived as a pitcher and hitter with the Nippon-Ham Fighters.

Can he hit in 2024 and still rehab his elbow?

If Ohtani really does want to keep pitching at his best, then he’d likely be rolling the dice if he decides to try to hit in 2024.

A presumptive second Tommy John surgery is a bit of a dice roll to begin with. But hitting in 2024, even just as a DH, and veering off the prescribed routine for rehab, could lessen the odds he gets back to his full form as a pitcher as he wants to. The operative word becomes “risk.”

How does this impact Ohtani’s free-agent market?

This is the million … err, $800 million … question. The first point here: Even if Ohtani is only a hitter, he would still be the most desirable free agent in this offseason’s class. This is a player who has 44 home runs and an overall offensive output that ranks 81 percent above league average. He could be in for a massive payday even if he is only half the player we have come to know. The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal wrote Ohtani could still be worth $500 million as a hitter alone.

And ironically, with the Mets having crashed and burned so dramatically this year, and with glaring holes in their pitching rotation as well as a need for a power bat to either complement or replace current top threat Pete Alonso, they remain as one of the primary potential destinations for Ohtani.  But to justify that kind of cost even for the seemingly limitless Steve Cohen, the Mets’ uberfan/owner, Ohtani needs to prove he’s capable of hitting in Citi Field enough to make up for the likelihood that, at best, his ability to help as a pitcher is a ways’ off, if not a non-starter.

So it will at least be a weekend series worth watching for Ohtani’s at-bats, as well as the crowd’s reaction.  For as nice a guy as D.J. Stewart is and for as beloved as Alonso is, I have a hunch that the loudest cheers for a home run will occur if Shohei belts one out.

I’ll, of course, be merely watching from home.  Travel? Surely, you jest?  A tank of gas is beyond my current capabilities.

Moral of this musing:  Don’t be too eager to make long-term plans.

Wonder if my namesake Mr. Cohen is pondering similarly?



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