What Shohei Ohtani’s torn UCL means for the 2-way star’s future, free agency

Shohei Ohtani has torn the UCL in his right elbow. In service of the Los Angeles Angels’ last gasp at contention — wasted, like most everything else about the franchise — baseball’s most awe-inspiring star suffered an injury that could alter the course of his singular career.

The game’s first two-way superstar, Ohtani is a mortal lock for AL MVP honors, which would be his second time winning the award. Though the Angels bought reinforcements at the trade deadline in an attempt to help Ohtani reach the postseason for the first time, and perhaps convince him to stay, that effort has failed. Realistically, it was doomed weeks ago, but when general manager Perry Minasian announced Wednesday night that Ohtani wouldn’t pitch again in 2023, and that Mike Trout would return to the injured list after rushing back from a hand injury, the curtain dropped.

Likely, it also signals the end of Ohtani’s time with the infuriatingly mediocre Angels. For the vast majority of baseball fans, that will elicit only a “good riddance.”

Due to hit free agency at season’s end, Ohtani was projected to draw offers in unexplored realms, $500 million or even $600 million. That was before the news of the injury, which typically requires Tommy John surgery, along with its 12- to 18-month recover process, to correct for pitchers.

Ohtani will still hit the frothing open market. Ohtani will still be the most sought-after star in MLB this winter, the most intriguing free agent, most intriguing player, in recent (or not so recent) memory. The equation, though, has undeniably changed — for right now, for 2024 and for the decade ahead in which Ohtani has the chance to continue blazing a path all his own in the robust annals of baseball history.

Let’s break down what the crushing news could mean for all those timelines.

Aug 23, 2023; Anaheim, California, USA; Los Angeles Angels designated hitter Shohei Ohtani (17) looks on from the on-deck circle during the second inning against the Cincinnati Reds at Angel Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

It’s unclear if Shohei Ohtani will continue to be the star hitting attraction in the Angels’ batting order for the remainder of this lost Los Angeles season. (Orlando Ramirez/USA TODAY Sports)

The rest of Shohei Ohtani’s 2023

Batting .304 with 44 homers, 17 steals and leading MLB with a 181 wRC+, all while logging a 3.14 ERA across 132 innings, Ohtani will win AL MVP. His 8.6 FanGraphs WAR dwarfs his closest competition in the American League (the Kansas City Royals’ Bobby Witt Jr.), and was on pace to inspire more questions about its standing among the greats than its standing relative to 2023 peers.

The innings counter, and his pitching contributions, will stop now. His hitting excellence does not have to. Even after leaving the first game of Wednesday’s doubleheader and learning of his diagnosis, Ohtani was in the lineup for the night game.

When he injured his pitching elbow in 2018, Ohtani played out the rest of the season as a hitter before undergoing Tommy John surgery in October. He could choose to do the same this season. He could chase 50 or 60 home runs or 10 WAR or some other accomplishment to further burnish his mind-melting résumé.

Or he could shut it down. Reports indicate he will get a second opinion before determining whether to have a second Tommy John surgery, but most UCL injuries lead there eventually. If he is destined for the procedure, the circumstances of his current station might incentivize him to do it as quickly as possible.

Shohei Ohtani’s landmark free agency

About those circumstances.

Ohtani’s free agency will now have complications. It won’t stop a horde of eager suitors from offering hundreds of millions of dollars to employ MLB’s most enthralling presence, but it might change the shape of the eventual deal.

It has to be assumed, pending a decision on surgery, that Ohtani won’t be pitching in 2024. Now, no one was aiming to sign him for one year, but the immediate impact will be dulled, and the risks inherent in his (or any pitcher’s) longer-term projections will be magnified. Last winter’s top two starters — Jacob deGrom and Carlos Rodón — have taken the mound a grand total of 13 times for their new clubs. The absurdity of Ohtani is such that he could feasibly contend to be the most valuable player in baseball without utilizing his pitching skill, but the dangers of throwing 99 mph have to be considered in the contract calculus.

Younger than Aaron Judge, with similar levels of offensive production and the extra dimension of pitching, even an injured Ohtani could command a $400 million commitment over eight to 10 years.

Throughout the past year, however, the coming frenzy has been viewed as the second and final Ohtani sweepstakes. It was assumed that he would make a choice this winter that guaranteed him a record-breaking sum of money and set him up for the rest of his career. That could still be the outcome, but a shorter-term play to create another crack at the market will have to cross his mind, or at least his agent’s mind.

If Ohtani wanted to give himself a chance to enter free agency fully healthy, he could of course sign a short-term deal. But more likely, the injury boosts the odds of a long-term deal that includes an opt out (or opt outs) in two to three seasons, when he would theoretically have returned to the mound and re-established two-way dominance without exiting his prime.

Shohei Ohtani’s 2024 season

If Ohtani has the surgery, he wouldn’t pitch until 2025. Even with a speedy recovery a la Bryce Harper’s recovery this spring (and with no postseason to take up his time in October), he likely wouldn’t be ready to hit until May of next season. That will be a factor for the teams that wish to employ him.

If he does not have the surgery, the whole enterprise gets murkier. He could choose to rest and rehab the injury and attempt to pitch in 2024, but the specter of a potential surgery would loom over every windup, and could force him out at an even less convenient moment.

A sharp drop in velocity preceded his departure from Wednesday’s game. Yet that wasn’t the first issue. Ohtani had repeatedly skipped starts due to what the Angels called arm fatigue. It’s unclear when exactly the injury occurred, but nursing and tending to a constantly limited pitching arm doesn’t seem like the best path forward.

The Shohei Ohtani 2-way experience in 2025 and beyond

Though a pitcher’s second Tommy John surgery can often require more rehab time, it’s probably safe to expect Ohtani to be a full go — barring any setbacks or unrelated injuries — for most if not all of the 2025 season if he goes under the knife.

To state the obvious, a fully operational two-way Ohtani — the player who has riveted the sports world over the past three seasons — is the prohibitive MVP favorite in whichever league he plays in, an elite on-field player with mammoth side benefits for his team in the form of sponsorships, media attention and merchandise and ticket sales. Since the Angels unlocked the full Ohtani experience in 2021, allowing him to hit and pitch on the same day and nix the previously prescribed rest days, he has belted 124 home runs and thrown 428 ⅓ innings with a 2.84 ERA, simultaneously. It’s worth re-reading for effect.

Ohtani’s injury will pause that unprecedented run, in some shape or form. Whether it’s with the Los Angeles Dodgers, the San Francisco Giants, the Seattle Mariners, the Texas Rangers, the New York Mets or some other team, the baseball world will be counting down, subconsciously holding a special chamber of breath for the next game where Ohtani starts on the mound and features in the lineup.

The otherworldly spectacle of Ohtani on a baseball field often disguises the rigor, the exertion at the core of his feats. This can’t and won’t go on forever. At some juncture, Ohtani will almost assuredly drop back to doing one or the other, hitting or pitching. Hopefully, probably, that day is many years away. But there’s some sliver of a chance we will look back and realize that, in fact, it arrived Wednesday.

For front offices, it’s a new variable to plug into the models, to the actuarial tables. For fans, it’s the tick of a clock that awakens you to the moment, the nudge to savor the history already witnessed.

And for Ohtani, it’s a challenge — the sort of obstacle he has conquered repeatedly and resoundingly, to the surprise and delight of millions, the sort he will have to conquer again.

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