Baseball / MLB

Angels manager Joe Maddon intrigued by Shohei Ohtani

AP, AFP-JIJI, Kyodo

Three days after Joe Maddon’s 66th birthday, the Los Angeles Angels’ new manager sat down in a familiar spring training complex and reminded everybody he was into two-way players before they were cool.

Left-hander Deshawn Warren was the Angels’ second-round pick in 1992, when Maddon was a roving minor league instructor for the organization that employed him for his first three decades in baseball. Although Warren never got out of the low minors as a pitcher, he was maybe the fastest runner in the organization.

Maddon unsuccessfully tried to persuade Angels general manager Dan O’Brien to let Warren play in the field at a time when serious two-way play had been abandoned for decades. Now that Shohei Ohtani has emphatically brought it back, Maddon is thrilled to be on the vanguard again.

“I’ve always been intrigued by that,” Maddon said. “I’ve always thought it’s something that should be looked into more deeply.”

Maddon has prided himself on being willing to be an innovator and an unconventional thinker for his entire career. He isn’t narrowing his mind as he heads into the first season of his homecoming with the Angels.

Ohtani’s unique progress is among Maddon’s most important concerns over the next six weeks in Arizona, along with the evolution of a starting rotation that will hopefully include Ohtani before Memorial Day.

The Angels are targeting mid-May for Ohtani’s return to the big-league mound, general manager Billy Eppler revealed Tuesday. Ohtani will be available as a designated hitter on opening day, but he will take days away from the big-league team to make rehab pitching starts in the minors.

“Because of a new rule in Major League Baseball that’s been implemented, we will be able to pitch him in a rehab game without having to place him on the injured list so that he can stay active as a hitter for us,” Eppler said.

Eppler and Ohtani have detailed plans for the two-way star’s final comeback from Tommy John surgery and subsequent offseason knee surgery, which pushed back his pitching progress.

Maddon is on board with the plans, but he also intends to make decisions by speaking face-to-face with Ohtani.

“The guy is such a generational talent you have to be mindful and patient as you get him back on track,” Maddon said. “The big thing there is when you’re the steward of somebody that’s going to be that good for a long period of time, you have to be careful.

“I think patience is a key word with all of this. I’ve been in development my whole life, so when you’re trying to develop a major league talent like him here, coming off the injury situations that he’s had, it’s important to be very patient, and I am.”

Ohtani will count as a two-way player on the Angels’ roster as opposed to being counted as one of the club’s pitchers. MLB rosters will expand to 26 players this season but no more than half of the roster can be pitchers.

Ohtani won the American League Rookie of the Year award in 2018, when he hit .285 with 22 homers and a .925 on-base plus slugging percentage while going 4-2 with a 3.31 ERA. As a hitter only in 2019, he hit 18 homers with an .848 OPS.

On Tuesday, Angels pitchers and catchers reported to spring training at Tempe Diablo Stadium, and Ohtani took a physical.

Eppler said Ohtani will “just push back a little bit” in spring training, getting on the mound a little later than the other pitchers. “He is still throwing. He has not been shut down. He was still keeping his arm activated (in Japan during the offseason).”

When asked whether he was disappointed that Ohtani will not have pitched from start to finish in any of his three seasons in the majors, Eppler said the value he brings to the team makes it all worth waiting for.

“Shohei Ohtani is a huge talent for us and I think it’s very evident to everybody the contributions that he makes, so I wouldn’t characterize anything as disappointing,” he said.