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Spotlight still shining on Nippon Ham’s two-way star Otani

by Jason Coskrey

Shohei Otani poked his head out of the hallway leading to the visitors’ clubhouse at Tokyo Dome and mumbled a shy query about the whereabouts of Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters PR man Hisashi Hatanaka before disappearing again.

He was back a few minutes later, back against the wall and Hatanaka just outside a circle of reporters, answering questions in soft tones.

Now a year into his pro career, such gatherings are routine for Otani. He was the center of attention during his rookie season, and as much as the soft-spoken 19-year-old demurs, baseball observers are again preparing to parse his every move on the field.

The question about Otani in 2013 was whether or not he could handle his dual role of pitcher and position player. Now it’s about trying to predict how good he can be at either or both, or if there are clues about where he’ll ultimately end up.

Many think Otani projects higher as a pitcher.

He did nothing to dispute that during the spring, and should enter the regular season on a high note after his final exhibition start on Saturday against the Yomiuri Giants, touching 157 on the radar gun while throwing five scoreless frames, giving up five hits, striking out four and walking one.

A day later, Otani sounded like a pitcher ready for the bullets to start flying for real.

“I don’t particularly have anything that I have to work on,” he said Sunday. “I pretty much just want to get ready for my next outing the way I’ve been doing.”

Overall, Otani made three appearances during the exhibition season, allowing a pair of runs on 11 hits while striking out eight and walking three.

He also took to pitching out of the stretch as former Fighters ace Yu Darvish still does in the majors, but was noncommittal abut carrying that into the season.

“I’m not sure yet,” he said. “I may change at some point, depending on how I feel at the time.”

When not on the mound or throwing side sessions, Otani got in his swings in the batter’s box, hitting .333, including two doubles, a triple and a home run, and driving in six runs in 24 spring at-bats.

Whether Otani choses a singular path or continues to multitask, he has the skills to excel at both.

Standing 193 cm with a 90-kg frame, Otani can dial his fastball up to the mid-to-high 150s and mix in a slider, splitter and big, slow curve.

“You don’t see guys that young with that kind of talent very often,” said Giants reliever Scott Mathieson.

That would be enough to send him near the top of many prospect lists, on either side of the Pacific, but Otani displayed a lot of talent as a hitter in 204 plate appearances last year, sprinkling in 15 doubles, a triple and three homers among his 45 hits.

The cherry on top is his defense. He did well in right field for the Fighters and showed off a rocket arm the few times he was called upon.

Right now, Otani is a curiosity.

There may be a few (very few) uber-talented players his age who possess similar skills on the mound and others who have better tools at the plate, but there won’t be many with Otani’s skill set at both simultaneously.

Last year, fans only got a glimpse, albeit prolonged, as he did various things while adjusting to his first year as a pro.

With a year under his belt, it’ll be all systems go from Day 1, and baseball observers will be tuned in to the show once again.