Ohtani to keep playing, his future and impending free agency murky after elbow ligament injury

ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — Shohei Ohtani already knew he had a career-altering tear in his elbow ligament when he roped a double to right in the fifth inning of the Angels' doubleheader nightcap on Wednesday.

After he hustled to second base, he was greeted by Elly De La Cruz. Cincinnati's 21-year-old rookie shortstop jokingly poked at the smiling Ohtani, essentially asking the two-way superstar, “Are you real?"

That's the question all of baseball has been asking about Ohtani for the past three seasons, ever since he returned from Tommy John surgery and redefined what's possible in this sport.

But the new injury to his ulnar collateral ligament is a merciless reminder that the 29-year-old Ohtani is, in fact, real — a baseball unicorn, but also an athlete challenging the limit of human potential and physiology.

Ohtani hit that limit earlier Wednesday when he abruptly left the mound after just 26 pitches in the doubleheader opener. Tests revealed a ligament tear that could require Ohtani to undergo a second Tommy John surgery, a circumstance that almost invariably worsens and shortens pitching careers.

Ohtani won't pitch again this season, but the Angels confirmed Thursday that he intends to keep playing as their designated hitter. The major league home runs leader traveled with the Angels to New York, where they'll begin the final 5 1/2 weeks of the regular season against the Mets on Friday night.

But Ohtani's long-term future, so sparkling and lucrative only a few hours before his injury, is now murky.

Ohtani was about 11 weeks away from free agency — a contract increasingly likely to be worth more than $600 million for two All-Star talents in one body. After spending six seasons with the perpetually disappointing Angels, he also had the chance to choose whatever team he believes will get him closer to winning a World Series.

While it’s heartbreaking for the players and leaders who know him best, they also realize it’s ridiculous to assume Ohtani can be stopped.

“If I was to bet on anybody bouncing back, he would be the guy,” Angels general manager Perry Minasian said. “I believe he’ll be back and he’ll be able to do both again at a very high level.”

A player can keep hitting with a torn elbow ligament, and he also can return to the plate several months after Tommy John surgery. Bryce Harper was back in the Phillies’ lineup this May about five months after the procedure, and Ohtani was the Angels' DH throughout the 2019 season and again in 2020 — although those were the least impressive offensive seasons for Ohtani, who reportedly gets annoyed and over-prepares when he can only play one way.

That means Ohtani could keep up his pursuit of the homers title through September. He began Thursday with 44 homers while batting .304 with 91 RBIs and a major league-best 1.069 OPS.

The long-term picture is less clear, since nobody knows whether Ohtani will be able to pitch again, let alone at the elite level he has reached over the past three seasons. Jacob deGrom and Walker Buehler are currently working their way back from a second Tommy John surgery, while a few pitchers have returned fairly well from two such procedures, including Mike Clevinger, Jameson Taillon and Nathan Eovaldi.

Ohtani was considered a lock to win his second AL MVP award in three years before the injury. Missing the final six weeks on the mound seem unlikely to change that, particularly if Ohtani keeps hitting.

He's still easily the AL leader in wins above replacement — 8.5 to Corey Seager's 5.0 in second place, according to FanGraphs. Several online sportsbooks and Vegas oddsmakers stopped accepting bets on the AL MVP award three weeks ago.

Another MVP trophy would be a bittersweet end to a year that began with his remarkable performance in the World Baseball Classic. Ohtani struck out Mike Trout with the final pitch to secure Japan's championship.

The last few weeks have made it clear Trout and Ohtani might never get the chance to celebrate team success together. The Angels are essentially out of the playoff race for the ninth consecutive season after losing 16 of their 21 games since the trade deadline, and Trout is back on the injured list after his return from a seven-week absence with a broken hand lasted only one game this week.

The team's decision not to trade Ohtani — and to make several acquisitions near the deadline in an attempt to make the playoffs — made no impact on the Angels' fortunes, but the team hopes its unwavering support might be a factor in Ohtani's free-agent decision.

The Halos still will have plenty of more successful competitors for his services, although Ohtani's pitching injury will require recalculations by all parties.

The most logical contender has always been thought to be the Los Angeles Dodgers, who covet Ohtani's two-way skills and worldwide fame. But top executive Andrew Friedman is a relatively cautious bidder and calculating spender despite his star-studded team's hefty payroll.

While his overall price tag in free agency might drop, Ohtani's stated desire has always been to find the best organization for his unique needs and desires, not the biggest contract. Money isn't the biggest motivation for a player who already makes tens of millions in endorsement deals.

While Ohtani had unprecedented value for his two-way skills, he is still one of the elite hitters in baseball, with a power stroke and a tenacity that make him enormously valuable solely as a DH. He's also an international star with a fan base and sponsorship ties that make his presence particularly attractive and lucrative, as the Angels well know.

Even if they've only got 5 1/2 more weeks together, the Angels say they'll do whatever is best for their once-in-a-lifetime talent.

“I think he needs time to wrap his head around it, talk to the people close to him,” Minasian said. “We’re in the process of getting second opinions. Once the information is there, he’ll make the right decision on what he wants to do, and we’ll support him, whatever he decides."


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