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Two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani chooses Los Angeles Angels

AP, Kyodo

Shohei Ohtani has decided he’s on the side of the Angels.

The two-way Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters star announced Friday he will sign with the Los Angeles Angels, ending the sweepstakes surrounding his move to the majors in a surprising destination.

Ohtani, who was posted this offseason by the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters and intends to be both a starting pitcher and an everyday power hitter, turned down interest from every other MLB club to join two-time MVP Mike Trout and slugger Albert Pujols with the Angels. The American League West team, which is coming off its second consecutive losing season and hasn’t won a playoff game since 2009, revealed on social media that Otani will wear No. 17.

The Angels’ combination of a promising core and a beautiful West Coast location clearly appealed to the 23-year-old Ohtani, who has confounded baseball experts at almost every step of his move to North America as one of the most coveted free agents in years.

Ohtani and his agent, Nez Balelo, issued a statement Friday announcing the decision after meeting with several finalists for his services earlier in the week.

Balelo said the 2016 Pacific League MVP “felt a true bond with the Angels. He sees this as the best environment to develop and reach the next level and attain his career goals.”

A Kyodo News reporter asked Ohtani to comment in front of the agent’s office in Los Angeles, only to hear there was “nothing” to say.

Ohtani announced about a month ago that he wants to move to the major leagues through the posting system. He was put up for bid for the maximum $20 million posting fee by the Fighters last week. He had until 11:59 p.m. EST on Dec. 22 to agree to a contract with an MLB team.

In his five seasons with the Fighters, Ohtani has a 42-15 record on the mound with a 2.52 career ERA. He has struck out 624 batters in his 543 innings and holds the record for the fastest pitch recorded in Japan at 165 kph (102.5 mph).

At the plate, Ohtani is a .286 career hitter with 48 home runs, 150 runs scored and 166 RBIs in 1,170 plate appearances, mostly as a designated hitter.

After his unusual courtship, Ohtani will attempt to chart an even more unique career path as the majors’ first regular two-way player in several decades. Ohtani already has drawn comparisons to Babe Ruth, who excelled as a hitter and a pitcher early in his Hall of Fame career.

Ohtani is expected to be both a right-handed starting pitcher and a left-handed designated hitter for the Angels, who will likely give him ample playing time in both roles.

On Saturday, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Kenta Maeda said he is delighted to have a chance to face Ohtani.

“I don’t know what the game will be like, but I’m looking forward to pitching against him or facing him as a batter,” Maeda said during an event in Hiroshima.

The National League’s Dodgers have six interleague games scheduled in July at home and away against the Angels.

When asked if he would like to face Ohtani as a batter or a pitcher, the 29-year-old Maeda said, “Either way.”

“But we won’t both be in Los Angeles, so I don’t think we’ll have many opportunities to meet each other,” he added.

Many baseball observers have long assumed Ohtani would choose a higher-profile franchise such as the Yankees or Dodgers, who would have both welcomed him into their rotation and lineup. He received serious attention from Seattle and Texas, who both could have given him more money than the Angels.

Ohtani listened to his suitors’ final pitches in Los Angeles before choosing the Angels, who play about 45 km from downtown L.A. in laid-back Orange County. Most of the Angels live in coastal Newport Beach and enjoy a comfortable, warm-weather lifestyle with ample big-market media attention, but without the withering scrutiny of other top destinations.

Yet Angels general manager Billy Eppler is very serious about winning, and he has spent several years scouting Ohtani, ever since his previous job with the Yankees.

“We are honored Shohei Ohtani has decided to join the Angels organization,” the franchise said in a statement. “We felt a unique connectivity with him throughout the process and are excited he will become an Angel. This is a special time for Angels fans.”

Ohtani has ample opportunity to fulfill his biggest ambitions with the Angels, who are in need of a top starting pitcher. They should also be able to fit him into their lineup when he isn’t pitching: Pujols has largely been a designated hitter for the past two seasons, but the three-time NL MVP is expected to be healthy enough to play first base more frequently in 2018.

Ohtani’s new teammates greeted the news joyously. Left fielder Justin Upton tweeted , “So pumped right now . . .”

Trout, who is getting married this weekend to his longtime girlfriend, simply sent out the emoji of two bugged-out eyes .

Ohtani’s disappointed suitors included Rangers general manager Jon Daniels, who had hoped Ohtani would follow in the footsteps of Yu Darvish, their former ace, instead of going to one of their AL West rivals.

“We’re disappointed we weren’t Shohei Ohtani’s choice, but wish him the best in Anaheim,” Daniels said. “He impressed us on and off the field at every turn. However, had he asked our opinion, we would have suggested the National League.”

Ohtani was coveted by every team because of his exceptional pitching talent and powerful bat, but also because he represents an extraordinary bargain due to baseball’s rules around international players.

The Angels will have to pay the $20 million posting fee to the Fighters, but Ohtani will not be paid a huge salary for the next three seasons. Ohtani, who will be under the Angels’ contractual control for six years, will sign a minor league contract and can receive up to $2,315,000 in international bonus money from the Angels.

Ohtani likely could have received a deal worth more than $100 million if he had waited two years to move stateside, but wasn’t interested in delaying his progress for money.

Ohtani should get an immediate spot in the front of the rotation for the Angels, who have endured brutal injuries to their starting pitchers in recent years.

Los Angeles’ ostensible ace is Garrett Richards, but he has been limited over the past two seasons. The rotation also currently includes Matt Shoemaker, Andrew Heaney and Tyler Skaggs, who have all dealt with major injury setbacks.

Ohtani was 3-2 with a 3.20 ERA this year while slowed by thigh and ankle injuries, but those numbers don’t indicate the incredible potential seen in a pitcher whose fastball has been clocked above 160 kph (100 mph). While he has occasionally struggled with control, Ohtani is widely thought to be a surefire big-league pitching prospect.

Scouts are more divided on Ohtani’s ability to hit big-league pitching consistently, but the Angels intend to find out. He hit .332 in 65 games with eight homers and 31 RBIs last season, occasionally unleashing the tape-measure blasts that had teams salivating.

The Angels could ease Ohtani’s transition to the majors by resting him on the days before and after he pitches, as he did in Japan. Los Angeles also has thought about trying a six-man starting rotation, which would allow Ohtani to have ample arm rest after pitching roughly once a week in Japan.

The Angels have missed the playoffs in seven of the last eight seasons, but Ohtani’s arrival is only the latest in a series of big moves for Eppler, who is determined to build a World Series contender during the remaining three years on Trout’s contract.

Shortly after the World Series ended, the Angels secured a five-year, $106 million deal with Upton, their late-season trade acquisition. The veteran slugger is an ideal solution after years of underperformance in left field for the club.

Earlier this week, Eppler bolstered his much-improved farm system by signing 17-year-old Venezuelan shortstop Kevin Maitan, a coveted prospect considered the best of 13 players recently taken away from the Atlanta Braves for violating international signing rules.