MLB.com Columnist

Jon Paul Morosi

Two-way star Ohtani begins '17 as DH-only

Japanese ace/slugger not yet on mound as he recovers from ankle injury

Two-way star Ohtani begins '17 as DH-only

Two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani has only one job -- at least for the moment -- with the 2017 season now underway in Japan.

Ohtani, billed as the next Babe Ruth in Major League Baseball, recovered from last autumn's right ankle injury in time to be the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters' designated hitter on Opening Day. In fact, he went 8-for-16 with one home run over the Fighters' first four games.

Yet, it's not known when Ohtani, 22, will make his season debut on the mound. He only recently began his throwing program, and the team has not established a timetable for the right-hander to pitch in games.

The longer the Fighters wait before Ohtani takes the mound, the more anxious MLB team officials will become. Clubs are eager to confirm Ohtani is healthy enough to pitch in an effort to assess the viability of him continuing in both roles in MLB.

Any risk pertaining to Ohtani's durability is mitigated by the increased cost certainty in MLB's international player acquisition system. Because he's not yet 25 years old, Ohtani would be subject to amateur signing restrictions if the Fighters post him to MLB clubs after this season. Generally speaking, teams would need to fit his signing bonus under a hard cap of less than $6 million per year, in addition to the anticipated $20 million posting fee received by the Fighters.

Ohtani posted an OPS of 1.004 in 382 plate appearances for the Fighters last year, along with his 10-4 record and 1.86 ERA on the mound. He's earned comparisons to Yu Darvish -- who wore the same jersey number (11) for the Fighters -- in physical stature and fastball velocity.

Ohtani dials it up for Japan

But Fighters catcher Shota Ohno, who has caught both Darvish and Ohtani, sees a difference in pitching philosophy between them.

"Darvish has so much in his arsenal and enjoys getting guys out with many different pitches," Ohno told MLB.com through an interpreter during a February interview. "Ohtani thinks a lot about percentages: 'If I throw this pitch here, I have the highest chance to get this player out.' He has very good instincts on the mound, maybe because he's a hitter. He thinks about what he'd like to see, or not like to see, in certain situations. His gut feeling is right most of the time -- if he was the hitter, what he would not like to see. That's the pitch he will make."

Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama told MLB.com in a preseason interview that Ohtani's typical week in 2016 included one start on the mound and three games at DH.

"I always tell Ohtani that of course MLB is a different league with better players than NPB [Nippon Professional Baseball], but if he's able to succeed in both things, that's one of my dreams -- and one of [Ohtani's] dreams," Kuriyama said through an interpreter. "I would not tell him to pick one. Ohtani looks at baseball in a different way. He wants to try different things and do things people haven't done in the past."

Kuriyama added: "If you ask Ohtani, he likes pitching better. If you ask me, I would say hitting. At this point, he's a better hitter than pitcher. He's still not a complete pitcher yet. He hits very naturally. He throws the ball very hard, but he's not a complete pitcher yet. He's a more natural hitter. His fastball, slider and forkball would be effective in MLB today. But he's not always consistent with his command."

Jon Paul Morosi is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.