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GMs discuss the future of two-way players

Executives break down Angels' utilization of Ohtani
MLB.com

PHOENIX -- Shohei Ohtani just may be that once-a-century player so unique that it's silly to compare him to anyone else. So before we decide he's about to usher baseball into a bright and shiny new era in which two-way players are nearly commonplace, this might a good time for a long, slow, therapeutic deep breath.

Here's the thing that needs to be made clear: Baseball people want Ohtani to succeed. They want it because it would be good for the game, since baseball hasn't had anything close to a full-time two-way player in 99 years. That would be 1919, when Babe Ruth logged 543 plate appearances and 133 1/3 innings for the Red Sox.

PHOENIX -- Shohei Ohtani just may be that once-a-century player so unique that it's silly to compare him to anyone else. So before we decide he's about to usher baseball into a bright and shiny new era in which two-way players are nearly commonplace, this might a good time for a long, slow, therapeutic deep breath.

Here's the thing that needs to be made clear: Baseball people want Ohtani to succeed. They want it because it would be good for the game, since baseball hasn't had anything close to a full-time two-way player in 99 years. That would be 1919, when Babe Ruth logged 543 plate appearances and 133 1/3 innings for the Red Sox.

And at a time when bullpens are more stressed than ever, when more teams are carrying seven and eight relievers and making do with two or three bench players, baseball people want it because the sport seems to be approaching a critical mass when two-way players are almost a necessity.

Here it's important to make a distinction between what Ohtani is attempting to do with the Angels and what most baseball executives see as more reasonable possibilities for two-way players.

The Halos hope they have a truly historic figure in Ohtani, a player so gifted that he may be a full-time two-way player -- say, starting 25 games on the mound and another 100 or so as a designated hitter or position player. Such a feat would be groundbreaking.

Video: MIL@LAA: Ohtani K's two in Spring Training debut

"I don't think anyone has come around with this talent and this skill set -- and I have no sense in how they're going to use him -- but it will tell us a lot about whether or not it's possible," Dodgers general manager Farhan Zaidi said.

Two examples from the 2017 Draft offer a glimpse into the thinking of teams. When the Reds used the second pick on high school phenom Hunter Greene, they had a decision to make. Virtually every scout believed he could be either a pitcher or a shortstop, if not both.

In the end, though, Cincinnati did not think it would be fair to ask him to do that, so -- at least for now -- Greene is an 18-year-old pitcher on course for the Majors.

The Rays took a different approach with Louisville's Brendan McKay, who was taken two picks after Greene. MLB Pipeline said he was the best two-way prospect since Dave Winfield, and Tampa Bay decided to give it a go. In McKay's first Minor League season, he recorded a .725 on-base plus slugging percentage in 149 plate appearances and a 1.80 ERA in six starts on the mound.

The Rays have no idea if McKay can continue to do both, but like the Angels with Ohtani, they're going to take the experiment as far as they can. Skeptics abound.

"Skill development in baseball is really, really difficult," Indians president Chris Antonetti said. "There are so few guys in baseball capable of developing on both paths, especially when you talk about a starting pitcher and all the things you need to do to be successful, and then to have enough reps as an offensive player to excel in both, that's a really challenging thing to do."

Video: LAA@SD: Ohtani walks twice, hits an RBI single

Versatility needed
Yet as teams look at ways to save roster spots, they've looked for opportunities to create a sort of super-utility player. Think Ben Zobrist with a fastball.

"It's probably going to be a guy on the bench who can relieve or go pinch hit," D-backs general manager Mike Hazen said. "Or throw an inning and then go play left field. You know, come into a game, strike out a lefty, play the outfield, steal a base."

Last season, the Dodgers wanted to reintroduce outfielder Brett Eibner to pitching, which he'd done at the University of Arkansas. That experiment never got off the ground after Eibner injured his right elbow and underwent Tommy John surgery. But when he returns later this season, he'll try again.

"I think it is realistic, but there's probably going to be some trial and error unfortunately," Zaidi said.

The A's toyed with such a possibility as far back as 1997 when they drafted Tim Hudson after he pitched and hit 18 home runs his junior season at Auburn. In the end, they couldn't find enough hours in the day to allow Hudson to hone both crafts. He went on to pitch 17 seasons and win 222 games.

Giants ace Madison Bumgarner has long been considered a candidate to occasionally DH. Astros infielder J.D. Davis was a closer at Cal State-Fullerton and pitched twice in blowout losses last season.

The Padres converted catcher Christian Bethancourt into a short-inning reliever in 2016, and he eventually got into six big league games without having much success (10.13 ERA).

And surely the Yankees have wondered if center fielder Aaron Hicks could do both after he threw out a runner at home plate with a throw clocked at 97 mph -- a Statcast™ record at the time.

For this kind of role, Brooks Kieschnick could be the model. In his final two seasons with the Brewers (2003-04), he had 144 plate appearances and 74 pitching appearances.

Video: Kieschnick on Ohtani adjusting to media pressure, MLB

"I would love to have the possibility of doing that, because we are, with expanding bullpens and all, we're really cramped as far as roster space goes," A's general manager David Forst said. "You could get to a point where it's so important for your roster that you find a guy to do it regardless of how much he excels at both things."

Anything is possible
No executive interviewed would use the word "impossible" to describe the possibility of two-way players becoming more commonplace. To a man, they're excited about the possibility. On the other hand, the skill set required to pull it off would be extraordinary even at a time when players are bigger, faster, stronger and more talented than ever.

"There would be great utility to the team," Antonetti said. "If you can get a player with one roster spot that's capable of contributing on the mound and in the batter's box, that's a really valuable guy.

"I think generally teams are open to anything that will give them a competitive advantage. To the extent teams find their way to maximize their 25-man roster spots, teams will aggressively pursue it."

While Ruth is a handy reference point for plenty of Ohtani stories, he only had 300-plus plate appearances and 15-plus starts twice (in 1918 and '19). When he joined the Yankees in '20, someone wisely thought he had a nice future as a slugger, and that was that.

In the years since, some players have flamed out at one thing and tried to do the other. But true two-way players have mostly been a topic of late-night conversation among scouts.

Hundreds of high school and college players pitch and hit, and in every draft room, scouts argue about which skill will allow the player to be most successful in professional baseball.

"I think it's really hard to be successful in the Major Leagues as either a pitcher or a hitter," Antonetti said. "I think the pool of players that are capable of being successful as both is really, really small."

Video: Benschoten on Ohtani's potential as two-way player

For the sake of argument, let's consider the upside of having such a player.

"I would love it," Hazen said. "I think you would put managers in a position of more freedom to be creative. Roster management is such a big deal. Giving them more roster flexibility, the way we try to manage our pitching workloads, I'd love to see it."

Hazen does not think a shortstop, catcher or outfielder would be able to do it because of the number of throws.

"Maybe a first baseman that doesn't have to throw a lot, or obviously a DH," he said.

Video: Will Ohtani continue to play a lot of DH?

Still, as forward thinking and as analytically driven as the D-backs are, Hazen is more intrigued than convinced.

"We're not there yet," he said. "I also think we need to think through how we would do it. We don't want to set the player up for failure. I don't know if we're there as an organization yet. I don't know exactly how we'd execute it. I'd hate to take a kid and say, 'Hey, you're a guinea pig.'"

For the Dodgers and Zaidi, it's not a question of whether there are college players talented enough to both hit and pitch in the Major Leagues. It's figuring out a workload that would allow them to practice both, to keep each skill honed.

In the end, that's the thing that gives everyone in baseball pause, and it's what the Angels are attempting to work through with Ohtani. If it's a success, that would be a great start.

"I think teams are going to err on the side of caution," Zaidi said. "But it's definitely a learning thing for the whole industry. Until we have some of those seasons on the board and see how guys recover and bounce back, not just in that season but in subsequent seasons, there'll still be some learning to do."

Or as Forst said, "I think we'll know better in about six months, won't we?"

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.

Los Angeles Angels, Shohei Ohtani