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Is Shohei Ohtani a major-leaguer? Jury still out

The Angels' Shohei Ohtani works against the Brewers

The Angels' Shohei Ohtani works against the Brewers during the first inning of a spring training baseball game on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018, in Tempe, Ariz. Credit: AP / Ben Margot

Shohei Ohtani was the Los Angeles Angels’ designated hitter on Opening Day, going 1-for-5. On Sunday, he’ll be their starting pitcher against the Oakland A’s.

The Mets wanted him. The Yankees wanted him. The Dodgers wanted Japan’s version of Babe Ruth, too.

Instead, he signed with the Angels for the league minimum plus a $2.3-million signing bonus and a $20-million posting fee. Under the Major League Baseball’s collective-bargaining agreement for incoming international players, Ohtani, 23, is under the Angels’ control for six years at the league minimum. He could have been worth more than $200 million through age 30 if he had waited until 25 to sign. Interesting choices.

To this point, everything he’s done, or hasn’t done, in spring training and beginning the new season, has been interesting.

How will the righthanded pitcher fare against the Athletics? The quality of his mound work March 24 in an intrasquad scrimmage was similar to other games. He threw 85 pitches, giving up two hits and two runs with five strikeouts and five walks. His spring training stats were an 0-1 record (in two games, both starts, not including the intrasquad game) for a 27.00 ERA in 2.2 innings with five strikeouts, two walks and a 4.12 WHIP.

His hitting — remember, he was going to be as good at the plate as on the mound, like Ruth — was not particularly impressive, either. He was 4-for-32 (.125 average) with 10 strikeouts, zero home runs and one RBI in spring games.

But the Angels see only brilliance. Veteran manager Mike Scioscia called the intrasquad performance “a great outing.” Certainly he doesn’t want to put more pressure than already exists on a rookie who must adapt not only to the game but to the culture. There are plenty of critics.

“The struggles of Ohtani since he arrived stateside have been glaring,” Yahoo reported. “There are plenty of ways to describe his lack of fastball velocity and difficulty commanding the pitch [in the intrasquad game] against a coterie of minor-leaguers.”

Some wondered if Ohtani should even be on the Angels’ Opening Day roster.

Ohtani, through an interpreter, said the speed of his fastball dropped (from as high as 98 mph earlier in camp to the low 90s) because he was working on breaking pitches. The Angels wanted him to adjust to major-league baseballs, which have a different feel than balls he threw for the Nippon Ham Fighters of Japan’s Pacific League.

“I honestly don’t know what the people up there making the decisions think of me,” said Ohtani after the intrasquad game. “I try not to think about it. It’s not really up to me.”

Scioscia reaffirmed management’s upbeat judgment by pointing out that Ohtani improved as the scrimmage moved along. He got only two outs in each of the first two innings (before he reached pitch-count limits), then in a stretch in the fourth and fifth innings, he retired six batters in succession.

“He definitely picked up as the outing went on,” said Scioscia. “He hit some important markers. Early on, yeah, he was a bit erratic. But he’s working on some things. He’ll be fine.”

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