Ohtani Making Noise in Two-Way Player Debate – And an MLB Team Will Listen (Part Two)

Feature Photo: Shohei Ohtani, RHP/RF
Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters
(Nippon Professional Baseball League)

Ed Note: This story originally published on September 29, 2016.

Part Two

In Part One of my look at the two-way emergence of Shohei Ohtani (RHP/RF, Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, NPB), I zeroed in on his exceptional 2016 performance, and the potential value he would bring as a possible free agent posting in 2017 or 2018. This time around, I’m going to focus on evaluating his potential impact on the offensive side of the ball vs. his high-octane talent on the mound, and the scenarios that I think best fit his skillset.

I’ve previously written about the cultural depth of the game of baseball in Japan, and I’ve seen Ohtani in-person through his first five years in the Nippon Professional Baseball League (NPB). Ohtani has shown me the tools and ability to be productive both on the hill and as a position player—it’s just that he is far more advanced on the mound right now than he is at the plate.  With that said, he is a pitcher first and foremost for me, because the impact potential on the mound is greater, and I think the bat still needs more time to develop. It is going to be very hard for him to get developmental at-bats in the major leagues without sacrificing potentially meaningful big league innings (unless a team wants to pay him $20-plus million a year to develop the bat at the front end of the contract even though the arm is big league ready now). While he is potentially an above-average defender at a corner-outfield spot—showcasing a 70-grade run and 70-grade arm—it will be tough to run him out to left field or right field everyday between starts and keep his legs fresh if you are relying on him as a rotation piece deep into a playoff run (remember what happened with Jake Arrieta (RHP, Cubs), who is a physical specimen, but who also cited fatigue impacting his performance in the 2015 playoffs after topping 200-plus innings during the regular season).

fighters_ohtani_batShould Ohtani be developed as a position player first, then I do think that the hit tool will eventually improve enough to where the power will contribute at a 55-grade level. But right now he has a hole on the inner half of the plate that he needs to cover up, and he has some hip travel that can make it hard for him to get his hands out front at times.  However, he can generate some bat speed, and his incredible athletic ability will allow him to make some necessary adjustments going forward if given the opportunity.  I expect him to always have some swing and miss, but with this season being his first in which he got almost full-time at-bats, his approach and pitch recognition should improve in 2017.  So bottom line is this — If I were a major league team, I would take him as a pitcher first (where he is a future Role 70, top-end of the rotation starter) over trying to max out his potential as a position player. (In my new scouting report of Ohtani as a position player, I graded him as a future Role 50, average everyday right fielder). If he pitches on a regular turn in the rotation and hits part time in between those starts, then I don’t think he’ll reach his offensive ceiling, thus limiting the value of the bat. And the lower the value of the bat, the less sense it makes to risk negative impact on the pitcher side of the equation.

Now, another scenario (albeit and unlikely one) in which he could get more time at the plate and still contribute meaningful innings on the mound would be to use him out of the bullpen while developing him as your everyday right fielder. With the skyrocketing value being affixed to back-end bullpen pieces like Andrew Miller (RHP, Indians), Aroldis Chapman (LHP, Cubs), Kenley Jansen (RHP, Dodgers) and Dellin Betances (RHP, Yankees), perhaps Ohtani fits best as a multi-inning reliever who can shorten the game on a more regular basis. Such a role would seemingly allow him to get on the mound in 50-plus games per year instead of 25-to-30, while also affording him the additional time to focus on his development as a position player. That still doesn’t solve the problem of the bat potentially needing time at Triple-A, but ultimately there will be some sacrifice of innings pitched any way you slice it in order to really see where the bat can go.

With valuations where they are now for multi-inning, shut-down reliever types going into this offseason, it would be tough to argue that even in this type of role, the money Ohtani will command isn’t still justified. If Jason Heyward (RF, Cubs) is getting $184 million over eight years to be a defense-first right fielder, why would Ohtani not be worth $200-million-plus with lighter defensive talent, but as a younger (reminder:  he’s still just 22 years old) and better offensive player – AND be able to give you Miller, Betances, Chapman, Jansen-like production on the mound?

Overall, this kid is very talented, and because of that gives any club a number of different routes they can go to utilize his skillset. I expect Ohtani, like most players, to struggle in one or more facets of his game if and when he comes to the major leagues, but I choose to see the two-way potential as a hedge against the risk of whatever struggles may come. I have to assume that any general manager interested in bringing Ohtani into their organization will approach the scenario with a relatively open mind, see what the kid really wants to do, and adjust their offer accordingly. Whichever way this ends up going, Ohtani is going to bring very solid value to a major league team in the not-too-distant future.