We always knew this was possible.
You drafted Shohei Ohtani not because he was the safest bet in the world, but because of the potential. And because, if he worked out, it was the most fun you could possibly have playing Fantasy baseball.
But it was always a risk.
And we've seen just about the worst-case scenario so far this season. It's not that Ohtani has been bad. In fact, among 134 pitches with at least 40 innings, he ranks 30th in ERA and 11th in strikeout percentage. No, it's because we have to add that qualifier — "at least 40 innings."
Despite how well he has pitched, Ohtani just hasn't pitched all that often. And now, he won't pitch at all for a while, likely at least a month, after the team announced he has been diagnosed with a Grade 2 UCL sprain in his right elbow. He will receive a platelet-rich plasma and stem cell injection in the elbow, and will be re-evaluated in three weeks. If all goes well, he could return to pitching shortly after, and may be back on the mound in L.A. by the All-Star break.
Or … he might not be back at all this season. Ohtani's injury is in that murky area where we just don't know. A Grade 2 strain of the UCL means the ligament is stretched and partially torn, but not entirely. A Grade 3 strain would require Tommy John surgery to repair, but that doesn't mean Ohtani is in the clear with the less severe grade. He just needs to look across the locker room for examples.
In 2016, Angels' teammates Andrew Heaney and Garrett Richards both tried to avoid Tommy John surgery by pursuing alternative therapies to repair damage to their UCLs. Both underwent stem-cell injections in their respective elbows, and while Richards was able to avoid surgery and has pitched well this season, he had plenty of issues in 2017. Heaney, however, ultimately required ligament replacement surgery after the elbow didn't show the hoped-for healing after two months.
Richards' case is hardly a best-case scenario, of course, as he has ultimately thrown just six more innings than Heaney over the last two seasons. The better example would be Masahiro Tanaka, who has pitched with a partial tear in his right elbow since July, 2014. Tanaka hasn't been without his own issues, and hasn't thrown 200 innings in a season in the majors yet, but he has also stayed on the mound and relatively effective, all things considered.
At this point, any speculation about what the future will eventually hold for Ohtani is just that — speculation. We know he's likely to miss something in the vicinity of a month, at least, and that's enough for now. You can't drop a pitcher with Ohtani's upside, and you can't just replace his potential. But you need to do something, and luckily, there are plenty of interesting pitchers out there to pick up.
Here are some to consider, from those likely available in just the shallowest leagues to some for those of you in deeper leagues:
It's been a disappointing season for Castillo, but expectations might have been even higher for him coming into the season than they were for Ohtani. He has a usable 3.99 ERA since May 1, and still has No. 2 starter upside for Fantasy.
Gonzales pitched to a 7.56 ERA in his first four starts of the season, but a .449 BABIP suggested bad luck was the likeliest explanation for his struggles. In eight starts since, he has a 1.98 ERA while going 5-1. You're lucky he's available, if he is, in your league.
Stop me if you've heard this one: Kevin Gausman is off to a slow start. He's still prone to the occasional blow-up — which might be the most obvious understatement possible — but he had a nine-start stretch where he posted a 2.79 ERA and 53 K in 58 innings before being tagged for 12 runs in his last two starts. He's tough to trust, but the upside is huge if you catch him on the right night (or week. Or month).
You drafted Ohtani, so you're not afraid of a little risk. Rodon has plenty, coming back from shoulder surgery. He also has plenty of upside, something he proved while posting a 3.45 ERA and 9.5 K/9 after the All-Star break in 2016. He's back from his rehab assignment this week.
One potential beneficiary of Ohtani's injury is Jaime Barria, who has been shuttled back and forth between the majors and the minors multiple times already. This likely cements a role in the rotation for the 21-year-old, who has a 2.48 ERA in seven MLB starts to date. He won't be able to sustain that kind of success, but his 3.88 FIP suggests he's not all smoke and mirrors.
If you're looking for more of a short-term fix, Wheeler is a two-start option in Week 12 (June 11-18). His 4.57 ERA is a sign Wheeler still has the same issues he's always had, but his 3.78 FIP is a sign that better days could be ahead. Wheeler still has tons of potential, even if the ace upside probably isn't there anymore.
A few stray thoughts...
- Even if Ohtani makes it through this in a best-case scenario, returning after the All-Star break and pitching like an ace, I'm not sure how I would value him next season. We know he can pitch in the majors, but beyond that, there might be even more uncertainty around him than there was this offseason. His ceiling in a six-man rotation might be 160 innings, and the margin for error is just so small given his usage. Even while he's mostly pitched to expectations this season, he heads to the DL ranked 42nd among starters in Roto scoring.
- Ohtani was probably never going to return value on his draft price even before this injury, given how few innings he's pitched to date. We'll have time to figure out what his long-term value is once the offseason hits, but it's clear he was overvalued coming into the season. And it wasn't hard to predict that.
- It's interesting to consider this possibility: What if Ohtani doesn't need surgery, but he also can't pitch again this season. Would the Angels use him as a full-time hitter? Probably not, but it's fun to think about, given how good he's been at both disciplines this season.
- Will the Angels consider going away from a six-man rotation, something they put in place largely to account for Ohtani's unique situation? That would be a boon to the value of the likes of Richards, Heaney, and Tyler Skaggs, who have been limited to just one start nearly every Fantasy week. Opportunity is still king in Fantasy.