Shohei Ohtani started the first game of the Angels’ doubleheader with the Reds on Wednesday afternoon by striking out two batters in the top of the 1st inning and hitting a two-run homer in the bottom of the frame. Ho-hum. But his velocity was down a bit, just 93 mph rather than his normal 96-97, and he knew something wasn’t right after throwing a fastball to the sixth batter he faced.
Manager Phil Nevin and trainer Mike Frostad came out to check on the righty and he left shortly thereafter, though it didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. Nevin initially said Ohtani wasn’t feeling any pain and the team said it was a matter of fatigue, which is easy to believe given his workload at this point in the season. Ohtani has also suffered some nagging injuries recently, so this seemed like more of the same.
Except it’s not going to be the same as a blister, broken fingernail, or cramping.
“He never complained about anything,” Angels GM Perry Minasian told reporters after the game. “He had cramps. He was dehydrated. But today is the day he came out of the game and said, ‘Hey, I have some pain in the elbow area.’ It’s the first day we heard about any type of pain.”
Ohtani’s done for the season as a pitcher, but there is a bit of hope that he can continue to hit and might even avoid surgery. Though he left that early game, he returned to the lineup for the nightcap and went 1-for-5 with a double and a run scored. He is also seeking a second opinion on the elbow to determine the best course of action.
You may recall that he underwent Tommy John reconstruction in 2018 and was able to return as a hitter in May of 2019, then he pitched again in 2020.
“I think he needs time to wrap his head around it, talk to the people close to him,” Minasian said. “We’re in the process of getting second opinions. Once the information is there, he’ll make the right decision on what he wants to do, and we’ll support him, whatever he decides.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s in New York and he’s in the lineup. I know how bad he wants to play.”
This is a huge blow to baseball in general, but it’s even tougher on Ohtani because he’s about to become the most coveted free agent in history. Even though he’s still the most talented player the game has ever seen, it’s hard to see teams taking a $500 million gamble on a 29-year-old who may have to undergo his second elbow surgery in five years. Then again, he’ll likely only miss one season of pitching and just part of one as an elite slugger out of what figures to be at least a 10-year deal.
What’s more, it was never going to be about the money for Ohtani, who will prioritize winning when choosing a new team. He’ll still get paid no matter what, so it’s a matter of where he thinks he’ll have the best shot at getting a title. The Cubs didn’t seem like a possibility to offer such an opportunity, but they’re suddenly looking much more competitive and this could grant them greater leverage in their potential courtship this winter.
Among the other things they do well, the Cubs have always been great when it comes to building presentations and showcasing both the organization and the City of Chicago. If they’re truly interested in trying to land Ohtani, particularly now that the price tag may be a little lower, maybe their ability to tout a slew of value-adds will strengthen their position.
That said, I think this makes Cody Bellinger and a top-end starting pitcher even bigger priorities for the offseason. The Cubs have a whole lot of question marks in the rotation that they can’t just hope to answer with prospects and they’ll have a gaping hole in the lineup if Bellinger departs. Ohtani is a unicorn whose mere presence is enough to justify any tax penalties they might incur from his salary, so Jed Hoyer should sign whoever else the Cubs need and then sort things out if Ohtani chooses Chicago.
The one thing the Cubs absolutely can’t do is hang their offseason on Ohtani only to find themselves scrambling ahead of spring training. Sign Bellinger, trade for a controllable starter, pray for Ohtani. Simple enough, right?