Friday afternoon, a rough Cactus League season continued for Los Angeles Angels wunderkind Shohei Ohtani, who got blasted for seven runs in 1 1/3 innings by the Colorado Rockies. Both Ian Desmond and Nolan Arenado took him deep, and Ohtani had to leave the game before reaching his scheduled pitch count.
So far this spring Ohtani has struggled both at the plate and on the mound in his relatively limited playing time.
Shohei Ohtani batting in Spring Training:— Daren Willman (@darenw) March 17, 2018
2 for 20 with 7 Ks, 0 XBH
Shohei Ohtani pitching in Spring Training:
2.2 IP, 9 H, 2 BB, 5 K, 3 HRA, 8 ER, 27 ERA
It should be noted those numbers do not include Ohtani's second spring start, which came in an unofficial "B" game..
No doubt, Ohtani has struggled so far this spring, which has led to questions about whether he'll actually be on the Opening Day roster when the Angels break camp in less than two weeks. Angels GM Billy Eppler told Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times the team did not give Ohtani any assurances about being on the Opening Day roster when they signed him. Here's what Eppler told DiGiovanna about Ohtani possibly starting the season in the minors:
"With his tool package, his ability and his athleticism, he's an elite-level prospect," Eppler said. "He's not a finished product. Players who are 23 rarely are. They tend to peak at age 25 or 26 to 30."
"It's too early to make a judgment right now," Eppler said. "I know there's an inherent human desire to want to know. We're intellectually curious. But often times, you have to allow things to develop a little bit before getting to that point of trying to figure something out."
Because of his age (23) and MLB's international free agent rules, Ohtani was only eligible to sign a minor league contract this offseason, meaning he is not on the 40-man roster. The Angels could easily reassign him to the minor leagues at the end of spring training without having to burn an option year or put him on waivers or anything like that.
Sending Ohtani to Triple-A would allow the Angels to get him more work on both sides of the ball in an environment where winning doesn't really matter. They could bring him along slowly and allow him to get comfortable before calling him up to the show. Also, 16-plus days in the minors would push his free agency back from the 2023-24 offseason to the 2024-25 offseason. Ohtani certainly wouldn't be the first top young player to have his service time manipulated in such a way.
For what it's worth, one of Ohtani's former teammates with the Nippon Ham Fighters said Ohtani always tends to perform poorly in spring training before turning it on for the regular season.
He wasn’t lights out in spring training when I played with him in Japan. Just wait until the season starts. It’s an entirely new person that takes the field.— Anthony Bass (@AnthonyBass52) March 16, 2018
Surely the Angels are hoping that will be the case. Opening Day is one week and five days away now, meaning Ohtani likely has two more games as a pitcher and five or six more games as a DH before the start of the regular season. That could be enough to convince the Angels he is ready to start the season on the big league roster and contribute to a postseason hopeful.
But, if Ohtani continues to struggle, the Angels might not have any choice but to send him to Triple-A until he gets acclimated, even if manipulating his service time is not a primary goal.