ANAHEIM -- With his rare two-way ability, Shohei Ohtani brings extraordinary value to the Angels, and there are a few rule changes this year that could make him even more valuable.
Ohtani, the American League Rookie of the Year in 2018, is coming off Tommy John surgery and just finished his throwing program in late December after it was pushed back several months due to left knee surgery in September. The Angels have yet to announce their official plan with Ohtani, but general manager Billy Eppler has indicated that he will be used as both a starting pitcher and designated hitter this season.
Eppler also revealed a new rule change that will help Ohtani with both his rehab and his availability as a hitter: Two-way players can be placed on the injured list as a pitcher while still being available as a position player. So if Ohtani needs more time early in the season to rebuild his arm strength, he could still serve as the club’s DH while pitching in rehab games in the Minor Leagues.
"We'll be able to send Shohei on an actual rehab assignment as a pitcher, and then the very next day, if we so choose, we can use him in a Major League game as a hitter," Eppler explained to MLB Network Radio last week.
The 25-year-old might not be ready to pitch at the start of the year after his elbow rehab went longer than expected, but he’s healthy enough to serve as the DH, so he can at least be in the lineup at the start of the year.
Ohtani posted a 3.31 ERA with 63 strikeouts in 51 2/3 innings in 10 starts in 2018, and he has batted .286/.351/.532 with 40 homers and 123 RBIs in 210 games as DH.
As a rookie, Ohtani served as the DH roughly three to four times a week while pitching on Sundays. He is expected to be utilized in a similar role this season, but new manager Joe Maddon said at the Winter Meetings last month that he'd be open to allowing Ohtani to hit on the days that he pitches. Eppler, though, said it's still too early to determine if that's something they'll do this season.
But the Halos could be helped by yet another rule change. Rosters are expanding to 26 players, but The Athletic’s Jayson Stark reported on Wednesday that clubs will be limited to 13 pitchers. The Angels, though, would benefit from the new two-way player exemption for Ohtani, so he would not count among those 13 pitchers and instead receive two-way status.
But in order to receive official two-way status, a player must pitch at least 20 Major League innings AND play at least 20 Major League games as a position player or designated hitter, with at least three plate appearances in each game in either the current or previous MLB season.
Ohtani was hurt by the fact that he didn’t pitch last year, which would’ve qualified him for two-way status in 2020, but the Angels are working with Major League Baseball to create an exemption for Ohtani because of his injury. Los Angeles is confident that it won’t have to wait for Ohtani to reach 20 innings, as the rule likely wouldn’t exist if he didn’t pave the way for other two-way players such as Tampa Bay’s Brendan McKay and Cincinnati’s Michael Lorenzen.
So if all goes according to plan for the Halos, Ohtani will be able to continue to rehab his elbow early in the year while still contributing as the DH in the Majors. And then once he’s fully healthy, his status as a two-way player would give the Angels an extra pitcher on their roster for even more flexibility.