Ohtani expected to pitch, hit for Japan in '23 Classic

December 6th, 2022

SAN DIEGO -- will be taking his two-way talent to the World Baseball Classic for the first time in his career. Team Japan manager Hideki Kuriyama said Tuesday at the Winter Meetings that if everything goes to plan, Ohtani will serve as both a pitcher and a hitter in the tournament.

Kuriyama, though, said it’s still too early to know if Ohtani will be a starting pitcher or the closer for Team Japan. It’ll mark the first appearance in the tournament for Ohtani, who missed the 2017 Classic because of an ankle injury.

"All options are available,” Kuriyama said through an interpreter. “We've got to get into February and see where his body is at. But ideally, we want him to pitch and hit and be a two-way player."

Kuriyama is certainly familiar with Ohtani, serving as his manager when Ohtani played for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters in Japan for five seasons from 2013-17. The Fighters were instrumental in allowing Ohtani to serve as a two-way player and it worked out for both sides -- Ohtani was a five-time All-Star and helped the Fighters win the 2016 Japan Series.

Kuriyama visited Angel Stadium to meet with Ohtani in mid-August but Ohtani didn’t officially announce his intention to play for Team Japan until Nov. 17. Kuriyama said he’ll be mindful of Ohtani’s workload but that the main focus is on winning the tournament.

Angels general manager Perry Minasian said he’s open to Ohtani serving in any role for Team Japan, believing Ohtani has earned that right. Ohtani, 28, is coming off two incredible seasons that saw him win the AL MVP Award unanimously in 2021 before finishing second in the balloting to Aaron Judge this year.

"I'm open to everything,” Minasian said. “Play short. Go for it. I'm open to everything. So if he wants to close, he's earned the right to close, in my opinion. If he wants to play center field, he's earned the right to play center field for his country. I don't have any issue with whatever he does. He's not one I'm worried about. I trust him."

Kuriyama and Minasian said they are still working out the details for how Ohtani will get ready for the World Baseball Classic and what his schedule will look like during Spring Training. Team Japan is in Pool B, which plays its opening round and quarterfinals in Tokyo.

Team Japan is joined by Korea, Australia, China and the Czech Republic in Pool B, with games being held from March 9-13 at the Tokyo Dome. If Japan advances, the quarterfinals are held on March 15 and 16 at the Tokyo Dome. From there, the semifinals (March 19-20) and finals (March 21) are at loanDepot Park in Miami.

"We haven't finalized anything yet,” Kuriyama said. “We will work on the schedule and the details later."

Minasian added that he doesn’t believe Ohtani’s participation in the tournament will affect his ability to get ready for the regular season. It's a huge year for Ohtani, who signed a one-year deal worth $30 million to avoid arbitration and is set to be a free agent after the season.

“He's the last guy I'm worried about,” Minasian said. “I know when the bell rings, he'll be ready to go. So there's a comfort to that and there's a trust. If it wasn't that type of person with that type of track record and our relationship, I might be a little more concerned. But with however we end up deciding where he goes and when he does things and how he does things, I'm not worried."

While Minaisian isn’t worried about Ohtani, other teams participating in the World Baseball Classic certainly are. Netherlands manager/Rockies hitting coach Hensley Meulens recalled when Ohtani famously hit a ball into the roof at the Tokyo Dome against Team Netherlands in 2016.

"If he’s going to pitch and hit, that’s a problem for everyone that’s going to face him," Meulens said. "He’s one of the better players in the world, and it’s shown over the last few years. The only opportunity we had to face him before was in the Samurai Classic in 2016 before the ’17 series. He didn’t pitch, but he hit, and he hit the ball through the roof. I think it’s in the museum now or in the Hall of Fame, so Shohei is a great player. Whoever has to face him has their hands full.”