Shohei Ohtani Changes the Angels’ Whole Outlook

Shohei Ohtani has decided to sign with the Angels. I don’t think many people were expecting an Ohtani announcement on Friday. And I don’t think many people were expecting Ohtani to go where he’s going. There’s a lesson in here, perhaps, the lesson that you should never assume another person’s motives. Yet that lesson also isn’t very helpful. The Ohtani sweepstakes were essentially unprecedented. We’re not going to see many cases like this in the future. By and large, we know how baseball decisions get made. We knew hardly anything about this one. Even though the Angels were there as one of the seven finalists, they were mostly written off, right up until they won.

The Yankees were seen as a favorite. Endorsement opportunities, and everything. They were eliminated early. The Mariners were seen as a favorite. History of Japanese players having success. No dice. The Giants were in there, having recently won a bunch. The Dodgers and Cubs were in there, being presently very good. The Rangers and Padres were in there, with Ohtani pursuits dating back several years. I don’t know what it was that might’ve allowed the Angels to stand out. Ohtani has indicated only that he felt the closest bond with them. That made the difference. You might want to think it was Mike Trout, but, according to Ohtani, it was the team connection.

There’s nothing there to analyze, I don’t think. Not in any meaningful way. Ohtani didn’t go for the most money. He went for what felt right in his heart. That’s the very definition of personal, and what matters most to Ohtani might not matter much to other people. In this case, it doesn’t matter what matters to other people. Something about the Angels spoke to Ohtani’s desire. That’s the whole story. We all have our own things we feel connected to. Those connections might not always seem outwardly to make the most sense.

Now the Angels have a talented young pitcher, who is also a talented young hitter. You’ve been hearing about Ohtani for years, so I don’t need to give you the summary. You know what he’s about. He’ll have to be managed carefully, and there’s certainly some amount of risk, but had Ohtani been an unrestricted free agent, he would’ve signed for something like $200 million. He’s about to earn, instead, the league minimum. Right now, Ohtani is probably one of the 10 or 15 most valuable players in the league. The Angels just…got him. They picked him up and put him on the roster. For all 30 teams, this was a one-time opportunity. It’s the Angels who now get to look a whole hell of a lot better.

The Angels deserve some amount of credit for how they presented themselves. We don’t know which way Ohtani might’ve been leaning at first, if he ever had a lean, but you have to think the Angels did something to improve their own odds. It was X parts good presentation, and Y parts good luck. The Mariners might feel like the biggest losers here — not only is Ohtani going to a rival, but they just this week added international-slot money, at some cost. For them, it’s part inferior presentation, and part bad luck. Same for the Giants. Same for all the finalists. There was always only going to be one winner.

The winner happens to have the best player in the world. And the winner happens to have an obvious need. Without Ohtani, the Angels didn’t have anyone steady in the rotation. And, with Albert Pujols and C.J. Cron, the Angels didn’t look great at DH or first base. Ohtani will slide right into that rotation. And, one would assume, Ohtani will also slide into the lineup on some days in between starts. Pujols is coming off a dreadful season. Cron took his own step backward. It’s never easy to sit a future Hall-of-Famer or a young guy with power, but the Angels have already worked this out in their heads. Playing Pujols or Cron less is unlikely to hurt them. The situation with Pujols was already going to get weird, no matter what.

When the Angels re-signed Justin Upton five weeks ago, I wrote about their narrow path to success. There’s a lot of talent and team control, but also a lot of injury risk and unreliability, in the starting rotation. You know about Garrett Richards’ arm. There’s also Tyler Skaggs, Andrew Heaney, Matt Shoemaker, JC Ramirez, and Nick Tropeano, to say nothing of Parker Bridwell. None of those pitchers have proved themselves durable, and Ohtani doesn’t change that. They have just as many question marks.

But Ohtani ought to be steadier. He doesn’t have any red flags with his arm. He didn’t pitch that frequently or that effectively in 2017, but that was because of an ankle problem that largely limited him to at-bats. That ankle has been addressed, and so Ohtani should be good to go. He throws a fastball in the upper 90s, with two breaking balls and a splitter, and in 2016 Ohtani allowed the lowest contact rate in the NPB by several percentage points. And you wonder if maybe the Angels will adopt something of a six-man rotation, to keep Ohtani on a more familiar schedule. That could help him, and it could also reduce the stress on the other arms. It could be good news across the board.

As far as Ohtani’s hitting goes, you might say it’s less polished, but his power is real. He struck out more than average in Japan, posting relatively low contact rates, but that’s a fairly conventional trade-off. Ohtani could be more of a slugger than a pure hitter, but his elite-level footspeed will also help him turn balls in play into hits, and hits into better hits. It’s been suggested that, in time, Ohtani will have to make a decision between pitching and hitting in the major leagues. For 2018, he’s going to try to do them both, as he’s done. He doesn’t have all that high a bar to clear.

When Ohtani was fully healthy, in 2016, he was worth an estimated 10 wins above replacement. That’s 10.4, to be precise. No one should expect him to do that again against a higher level of competition, but you can see how he might be, say, a four-win pitcher and a one-win hitter. Maybe even a two-win hitter, or beyond, depending on the role. It’s not that easy to stand out as a DH, but you could somewhat conservatively figure Ohtani is a four- or so win player. That’s going straight to the math. That’s ignoring the entire dual components of watchability and marketability.

So you can forget that lingering impression you have that the Angels are a one-man team. Look at them now. There’s Trout. There’s Ohtani. There’s Upton. There’s Andrelton Simmons. There’s Kole Calhoun. The Angels still don’t have that good of a farm, but the roster has a legitimate core, even outside of all the risky starting pitchers. The upper-end talent here is solid, and no longer just because Trout is propping them up.

On the downside:

The Angels aren’t the Astros. The Angels aren’t a surefire playoff team. Steamer likes them more than NEIFI does, but it’s obvious the Angels aren’t a juggernaut, even with Ohtani in the fold. Remember, though, it’s not like they mortgaged the future to get Ohtani to sign. He just flat-out signed. Where there was nothing, now there is Ohtani, and because he’s so affordable, the Angels have flexibility to plug holes at second base and in the bullpen. The Angels can get better, and Ohtani makes them more legitimate, both now and down the road.

That’s slightly bad news for the Astros. It’s more meaningfully bad news for the Rangers and the Mariners. They’re both left with international-slot money to spend, the Mariners having recently given up talent to get more of it. There are no more Ohtanis. Might never be more Ohtanis. The international market, at least, isn’t empty.

The Mariners probably feel empty today, though. There’s an empty feeling among all the finalists who thought they had a real chance. Ohtani could sign with just one of 30 teams, and then with just one of seven. All of them could’ve talked themselves into the idea that their organization would be the most desirable. Ohtani selected the Angels. The other teams will all move on, doing whatever they can to improve, but there’s nothing else even close to this. There was a 30-person raffle, and instead of being a new, I don’t know, dishwasher, the prize was a private island. Billy Eppler won a private island. All the other executives have to leave and go to the grocery store.

There are so many more angles to cover here, such as Ohtani being screwed by the CBA he had nothing to do with. Part of what made this all so interesting is that Ohtani wasn’t going to cost very much, but, of course, he should’ve cost a whole lot. He opted into this, technically, but he should still be paid what he’s worth. They should all be paid what they’re worth. So many players out there are getting systematically robbed.

But that’s all for another day. Because of Ohtani’s high talent, and because of Ohtani’s low cost, he was a unicorn. He’s decided he wants to play for the Angels. We don’t know if the Angels are going to be good. Truthfully, we don’t know if Ohtani is going to be good. But at last, we have at least one of our answers. You’re just about finished hearing about Shohei Ohtani on an everyday basis in the offseason. That coverage will come back with a vengeance next March and April and May.

We hoped you liked reading Shohei Ohtani Changes the Angels’ Whole Outlook by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

“You’re just about finished hearing about Shohei Ohtani on an everyday basis in the offseason.”

I don’t believe that for one minute.