MLB.com Columnist

Barry M. Bloom

Ohtani won't pitch but hopes to bat in Classic

Ohtani won't pitch but hopes to bat in Classic

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Shohei Ohtani won't pitch for Japan next month in the fourth edition of the World Baseball Classic, but there's still a chance that he could show off his incredible skills as a hitter.

Ohtani, 22, a rare right-handed pitcher and a prodigious left-handed hitter who serves as designated hitter when he doesn't throw for the Nippon-Ham Fighters, told MLB.com on Thursday that despite his injured right ankle, he could still swing the bat for his country.

Ohtani just came off a regular season in which he won 10 games, striking out 174 in 140 innings while slugging 22 homers with what would have been a league-high 1.004 OPS if he had enough plate appearances to qualify.

In this edition of the World Baseball Classic, the Japanese will attempt to regain the championship status they enjoyed in winning the first two tournaments (2006 and '09).

"At this point my goal is still to hit in the WBC, but I can't be sure," Ohtani said through his interpreter, Ippie Mizuhara. "I was selected as a pitcher, and I planned on pitching. It's not like because I can't pitch now I can just hit. It's not up to me. It's up to Team Japan.

"I was really looking forward to it. It would have been my first time playing in the WBC. I was trying to work my way up to this tournament, and then I had this setback."

Ohtani's tender right ankle -- an injury sustained this past October in his team's six-game victory over the Hiroshima Carp in the Japan Series -- could need surgery before the regular season commences in Japan. The procedure, to remove a bone chip, would shelve him for about three months.

Ohtani's Fighters are in the middle of a 10-day training period on the Padres' side of the Peoria Sports Complex for the second consecutive spring.

Since the team arrived this past weekend, Ohtani has been felled by the flu and is on his own training schedule separate from his teammates because of the injury. On Thursday morning, he tossed a ball for 20 minutes from his windup on flat ground, then took about a half-hour of batting practice in the indoor cages just outside the main clubhouse.

Ohtani seemed no worse for the wear. He didn't favor his back foot as he threw, and he took BP without any incident. But Ohtani can't run full throttle, and that's why he said he's nowhere close to where he needs to be.

When asked how he felt on Thursday, Ohtani simply said, "So-so," leading to a question about surgery.

"It's definitely a possibility. I'm not going to rule it out," he said. "I'm not sure what's the best timing. I've got to see the progress first. If it's not getting any better, then it's probably better to get the surgery earlier. I've got to talk about that with the trainers, the team, the front office. But is there a possibility? Yes, there is a possibility."

Ohtani is the next big thing coming out of Japan, so Major League Baseball club owners and officials are holding their collective breath. As soon as the Fighters post him under new international rules adopted in the recent Basic Agreement by MLB and the MLB Players Association, there should be a feeding frenzy.

Ohtani would be the best pitcher to come over from Japan since Masahiro Tanaka signed with the Yankees in 2014 and, before that, Yu Darvish, who was 26 when he joined the Rangers in '12 following seven seasons in Japan. Darvish also pitched for the Fighters.

The difference is Ohtani's ability with the bat.

Take a look at more of this past season's numbers: Ohtani, who throws in the high 90s and regularly reaches 100 mph, went 10-4 with a 0.957 WHIP. As a hitter, he had a slash line of .322/.416/.588 with the 22 homers, 67 RBIs and 104 hits, all in just 323 at-bats.

Ohtani used to play the outfield, too, but the Fighters stopped that practice after he injured a calf muscle and missed part of the 2015 season.

Ohtani is proud of the numbers he produced this past season.

"I'm very happy. I stayed healthy all year," Ohtani said. "I wanted to really contribute with my pitching. That was one of my goals. And of course we won the championship. That was the biggest thing."

There hasn't been a true two-way player in the Majors in the DH era. More than a century ago, Babe Ruth played some outfield on the days he didn't pitch for the Red Sox, appearing in 225 games as an offensive player in 1918-19, when he also pitched in 37 games. The Yankees shut him down as a pitcher after they got him from Boston in time for the 1920 season.

More than a few MLB general managers said this past November that Ohtani was welcome to hit and pitch for their clubs when he signs here. The pool of those teams obviously would be restricted to the American League, which, like the Pacific League in Japan, uses the DH.

"I'm humbled and honored to hear that from American general managers," Ohtani said. "Of course, that's what I'd like to do, both hit and pitch. But right now my focus has to be on this season first, see how this season plays out, and then we'll go from there."

Ohtani is hoping that the Fighters will post him this coming offseason for the maximum fee of $20 million. They can do so any time between the end of the season and when the Japan Leagues begin Spring Training in early February.

But Ohtani is well aware that surgery could push back his MLB debut another season.

"At this point I can't say much," Ohtani said. "I'm not really sure. I'm hoping that it's not going to be that much of an issue."

Under the new international rules, the exemption from bonus pools to sign a young player out of a foreign professional league is much stricter. Any player must be 25 and have played six full seasons to be exempt.

Ohtani has played four full seasons, but he won't be 25 until July 5, 2019, and MLB officials have said there will be no exceptions to accommodate him.

That means the big contract dished out to Tanaka by the Yankees (seven years and $155 million) won't be available for Ohtani until he reaches both thresholds. But that won't stop him, he said. Ohtani earned $1.83 million last season. In the U.S., where teams can trade up to pools as high as $10 million each, he's certainly going to make much more than that.

"Personally, those rules are not going to stop me from going over to the States," Ohtani said. "I'm more worried about the players going after me and are younger than me. If I set the bar too low, then those guys will get less money. I don't want that to happen."

Ohtani added that he doesn't want to get too far ahead of himself.

"Right now the most important thing is getting healthy first," Ohtani said. "That's the immediate goal."

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.