Shohei Ohtani’s agent says the Los Angeles Angels’ two-way superstar is determined to continue his career as both a pitcher and a hitter after he recovers from his latest elbow injury.
Nez Balelo said Monday that he thinks it’s “inevitable” that Ohtani will need some sort of procedure to heal the ligament tear in his pitching elbow, but they’re still gathering opinions on whether that procedure should be Tommy John surgery or a nonsurgical remedy as he heads into free agency this winter.
“There’s not a question in his mind that he’s going to come back and he’s going to continue to do both, like we have the last few years,” Balelo said.
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Balelo said Ohtani wants to continue playing this season as the Angels’ designated hitter, although he acknowledged the plan could change soon if they decide to have a surgical procedure early to get ready for the start of the 2024 season. Hitters who have Tommy John surgery typically require six to eight months of rehabilitation before they can hit again.
“I do know this: No matter what timetable we’re dealing with and when we get this done, Shohei is going to be in somebody’s lineup next year DHing when the bell rings,” Balelo said. “We know that.”
Perhaps coincidentally, the Angels pulled Ohtani from their lineup against Baltimore on Monday night about one hour before first pitch and about one hour after Balelo spoke, citing tightness in the designated hitter's right oblique muscles. Ohtani has missed only two games all season.
“If we continue to gather information that we feel is applicable to what our future is ... if there’s anything that affects that, we will probably make a decision,” Balelo said.
Ohtani is the frontrunner to win his second AL MVP award in three seasons after winning 10 games on the mound and hitting a major league-leading 44 homers.
But Ohtani's free agency and his unique value to clubs could dominate conversation in baseball's early offseason. Balelo isn't sure whether the injury will prevent Ohtani from pitching in 2024, but his client doesn't intend to sit out the season entirely, as some have suggested as an optimal course for returning to full strength on the mound.
While Balelo spoke to reporters in a suite at Angel Stadium, Ohtani took batting practice on the field — a rarity for the superstar, who typically hits in the cage before games. Along with his 44 homers, Ohtani leads the majors with a 1.066 OPS and ranks sixth with 95 RBIs.
Ohtani left the mound Aug. 23 in Anaheim during the second inning against the Cincinnati Reds, and tests quickly revealed a tear in his ulnar collateral ligament. Ohtani hadn’t complained of any pain in his elbow in the days and weeks before that, Balelo said.
Balelo says the new tear is in a different part of the ligament than the spot that was surgically repaired in late 2018. That repaired spot is still strong and intact, which Balelo says is an encouraging part of a tough situation for Ohtani, who isn't giving up on pitching despite its toll on his body.
“Shohei loves to pitch, and all of you know that,” Balelo said. “There’s probably some situations out there that we didn’t even explore that could probably get him back in the lineup maybe quicker because of some type of surgery, (but) we don’t want to create any kind of situation where it’s going to be detrimental to him. We just want to make sure that longevity is important, because he loves to pitch.”
Balelo also pushed back against speculation on a rift between Ohtani and the Angels, saying the club has been supportive and positive throughout the process. Both Balelo and the Angels say there was no reason to suspect Ohtani was wearing down while playing every day during a difficult August for the club.
“The word ‘fatigue’ was abused, in my opinion," Balelo said. "He continues to feel good. He takes care of himself. Nobody can do what this guy is doing. People were just assuming he was breaking down, and there should have been signs for people to notice. That's not the case at all. Shohei, he drives his career. He does what he needs to do, and he knows he's got the cards to say, ‘I need a day. I need to take a beat.’ He doesn't do it enough, because he doesn't feel like he needs to, and so we respect that.”
Balelo gave no indication Ohtani is likely to speak to reporters again this year, and the agent said he spoke out to give official information on Ohtani's future and to counteract what he perceives as negativity around this injury amid the Angels' annual struggles. Los Angeles is all but certain to miss the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season of Ohtani's major league career.
“We'll tackle free agency when it comes,” Balelo said. “I'm not worried about free agency.”