ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — Shohei Ohtani has decided he’s on the side of the Angels.
The Japanese two-way star announced Friday he will sign with the Los Angeles Angels, ending the sweepstakes surrounding his move to the majors in a surprising destination.
Ohtani turned down interest from every other big-league club to join two-time MVP Mike Trout and slugger Albert Pujols with the Angels, who are coming off their second consecutive losing season and haven’t won a playoff game since 2009.
But the Angels’ combination of a promising core and a beautiful West Coast location clearly appealed to the 23-year-old Ohtani, who has confounded baseball experts at almost every step of his move to North America as one of the most coveted free agents in years.
Ohtani’s agent, Nez Balelo, issued a statement Friday announcing the decision. Balelo said the 2016 Japanese MVP “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.”
After his unusual courtship, Ohtani will attempt to chart an even more unique career path as the majors’ first regular two-way player in several decades. Ohtani already has drawn numerous comparisons to Babe Ruth, who excelled as a hitter and a pitcher early in his Hall of Fame career.
Ohtani is expected to be both a starting pitcher and a left-handed designated hitter for the Angels, who intend to give him ample playing time in both roles.
Many baseball observers have long assumed Ohtani would choose a higher-profile franchise such as the Yankees or Dodgers, who would have both welcomed him into their rotation and lineup. He received serious attention from Seattle and Texas, who both could have given him more money than the Angels.
Ohtani listened to final pitches from several teams in Los Angeles earlier this week before making his choice. The Angels play about 28 miles from downtown LA in laid-back Orange County, where most of the Angels live in coastal Newport Beach and enjoy a comfortable, warm-weather lifestyle with ample big-market media attention, but without the withering scrutiny of other top destinations.
But Angels general manager Billy Eppler is very serious about winning, and he has spent several years scouting Ohtani, ever since his previous job with the Yankees.
“We are honored Shohei Ohtani has decided to join the Angels organization,” the franchise said in a brief statement. “We felt a unique connectivity with him throughout the process and are excited he will become an Angel. This is a special time for Angels fans.”
Ohtani will be formally introduced at a news conference later in the month.
Ohtani has ample opportunity to fulfill his biggest ambitions with the Angels, who are in need of a top starting pitcher. They should also be able to fit him into their lineup when he isn’t pitching: Pujols has largely been a designated hitter for the past two seasons, but the three-time NL MVP is expected to be healthy enough to play first base more frequently in 2018.
Ohtani was coveted by every team because of his exceptional pitching talent and powerful bat, but also because he represents an extraordinary bargain due to baseball’s rules around international players.
The Angels will have to pay the $20 million posting fee to Ohtani’s previous club, the Nippon Ham Fighters, but Ohtani will not be paid a huge salary for the next three seasons. Ohtani will sign a minor league contract and can receive up to $2,315,000 in international bonus money from the Angels.
Ohtani likely could have received a deal worth more than $100 million if he had waited two years to move stateside, but Ohtani wasn’t interested in delaying his progress for money.
Ohtani is likely to have an immediate spot in the front of the rotation for the Angels, who have endured brutal injuries to their starting pitchers for two seasons.
Los Angeles’ ostensible ace is Garrett Richards, but he has been limited to 62 1/3 innings over the past two seasons due to major injuries. The rotation also currently includes Matt Shoemaker, Andrew Heaney and Tyler Skaggs, who have all dealt with major injury setbacks recently.
Ohtani was 3-2 with a 3.20 ERA this year, but was slowed by thigh and ankle injuries. He hit .332 in 65 games with eight homers and 31 RBIs.
But those numbers don’t indicate the incredible potential seen in Ohtani, whose fastball has been clocked above 100 mph. While he has occasionally struggled with control, Ohtani is widely thought to be a surefire big-league pitching prospect.
The Angels have missed the playoffs in seven of the last eight seasons, but Ohtani’s arrival is only the latest in a series of big moves for Eppler, who is determined to build a World Series contender during the remaining three years on Trout’s contract.
Shortly after the World Series ended, the Angels secured a five-year, $106 million deal with left fielder Justin Upton, a late-season trade acquisition. Upton is an ideal solution to years of under-performance in left field for the Angels, who have been carried offensively by Trout.
Earlier this week, Eppler bolstered his much-improved farm system by signing 17-year-old Venezuelan shortstop Kevin Maitan, a coveted prospect considered the best of 13 players recently taken away from the Atlanta Braves for violating international signing rules.
Photo credit – Shizuo Kambayashi / Associated Press / Tokyo, Japan