ANAHEIM, Calif. — Shohei Ohtani is still evaluating medical opinions on the tear in his right ulnar collateral ligament, but his agent, Nez Balelo of CAA, made two things clear Monday afternoon: Ohtani will be ready to at least hit at the start of next season, regardless of how much longer he plays in 2023, and he will remain a two-way player down the road.
“There’s not a question in his mind that he’s going to come back and he’s going to continue to do both,” Balelo told a large contingent of reporters from his suite at Angel Stadium, marking the first time he, or Ohtani, has addressed the media since his tear was revealed Aug. 23.
Ohtani will continue to hit for the foreseeable future — though he was a late scratch from Monday’s lineup because of what the Los Angeles Angels described as right oblique tightness — but Balelo didn’t commit to him hitting the rest of the season.
Balelo acknowledged that Ohtani, who will soon be one of the most prominent free agents in baseball history, will eventually undergo “some type of procedure,” a list of options that would seemingly include Tommy John surgery — the standard UCL replacement that would keep him off a mound through the 2024 season — or a noninvasive treatment that utilizes stem cells and platelet-rich plasma (PRP) in an effort to strengthen the ligament. A relatively new, less-invasive bracing procedure also has been popularized in recent years, though it is unclear whether Ohtani is a candidate for that.
In dealing with a previous UCL tear, Ohtani underwent stem cell and PRP therapy in June 2018 in hopes of avoiding surgery, then learned he needed Tommy John less than three months later and underwent the procedure Oct. 1 of that year.
Waiting until then kept Ohtani from serving as a designated hitter until May of the following season. But Balelo expressed confidence that won’t be the case this time around, adding that the most recent tear is on the lowest extremity of his right UCL, closest to the ulna and radius bones, whereas the tear five years ago was at the highest extremity, attached to the humerus.
“It’s completely different,” Balelo said, adding that the graft from Ohtani’s initial surgery is “all together, all intact, no problems. Everything looks good.”
Balelo said doctors told him the current tear is “the best-case scenario for the situation we’re in,” though he didn’t provide any indication on a course of action or a return to pitching.
“Shohei’s going to be fine,” Balelo said. “Is he going to pitch the rest of the year? No. We already know that. Is he going to get into next year? We don’t know yet. So just bear with me on that. But I do know this — no matter what timetable we’re dealing with and when we get this done, Shohei’s going to be in somebody’s lineup next year, DHing when the bell rings. We know that. We’re not going to push that. He’s going to be good to go.”
Ohtani served as the Angels’ designated hitter for most of 2018 and all of 2019 and struggled to both pitch and hit during the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season. But he emerged as a two-way force the following year, winning the American League MVP award unanimously in 2021 and finishing second to Aaron Judge, who set the AL home run record, in 2022. The 2023 MVP is all but certain to be Ohtani’s, even though the Angels are trending toward their eighth consecutive losing season.
Ohtani entered the Angels’ most recent homestand leading the majors in OPS (1.066), homers (44) and triples (eight) while adding 20 stolen bases. He finished his season as a pitcher with a 10-5 record, a 3.14 ERA and 167 strikeouts in 132 innings.
Ohtani’s last start came Aug. 23, when he exited in the second inning of a doubleheader and later underwent the MRI that revealed the tear. Ohtani nonetheless opted to hit in the second game of the doubleheader and continued to hit during the Angels’ ensuing road trip through New York, Philadelphia and Oakland.
“This guy loves the game,” Balelo said. “When he found out that there’s nothing that he can do to create any more damage than what’s already been done, he was like, ‘I’m going to play this thing out until we gather more information to make the right decision.’ That’s where we’re at as of today.”
Ohtani skipped the start that preceded his last outing because of what was described as arm fatigue and had been battling intermittent bouts of cramping and fatigue in prior weeks, prompting questions around whether the Angels could have prevented the tear or at least caught it sooner. Angels general manager Perry Minasian told reporters last week that Ohtani and Balelo declined an MRI after Ohtani’s Aug. 3 start against the Seattle Mariners, when he complained of finger cramps. Balelo confirmed those details, adding that Ohtani homered later in that game and made his next scheduled start, throwing 97 pitches.
“It was just a quick suggestion,” Balelo said. “Thought about it, talked to him, everything was good. It didn’t warrant it at all.”
Ohtani is not expected to address the media any time soon. Balelo wouldn’t get into what types of contracts he will pursue in free agency or Ohtani’s chances of re-signing with the Angels, but he said the player’s relationship with the team hasn’t been strained by recent developments. As was the case when Ohtani continued to hit through a Grade 2 tear for the last three and a half months in 2018, doctors have told Balelo that Ohtani can’t do any further damage to his UCL by continuing to serve as the Angels’ DH.
“He can lift, he can run, he can slide, take violent swings,” Balelo said. “He can do anything he wants right now. It doesn’t affect the problem in question. We’re good. Whatever we decide to get done, we have to take into consideration next year. The way the timetable is going to play out, he’s going to be fine when the bell rings in ’24.”