Shohei Ohtani broke the hearts of executives across the baseball landscape when he picked the Los Angeles Angels over the rest of the field. But some evaluators with the other clubs will continue to closely follow his effort to be a two-way player, because, conceptually, they find the idea of one player serving as both a hitter and a pitcher to be intriguing at a time when teams are increasingly looking for roster flexibility.
The Angels intend to use Ohtani as a starting pitcher, a schedule that will have enormous challenges because of the intense preparation required for somebody in that role. Folks with other teams wonder if, in the end, Ohtani will be limited in how much he serves as a DH because of all that’s required of him between starts.
But there could be another way for a player to help as both a position player and a pitcher, with perhaps even more utility -- as a reliever whose role is to eat innings in one-sided games, or perhaps as a lefty-vs.-lefty or as a righty-vs.-righty specialist.
Many players grew up pitching and hitting, the right-handers often playing shortstop or the outfield on the days they didn’t pitch, the left-handers playing first base or the outfield. Every day, you can see position players half-jokingly showing off pitches to teammates as they warm up for batting practice or games. When Andrelton Simmons and Freddie Freeman were with the Braves, teammates engaged in a running argument about which one of them threw harder, because both had been pitchers earlier in their baseball lives.
But long ago, a conventional-wisdom line was created between position players and pitchers: Either you did one or the other, but not both. Occasionally, pitchers are used as pinch hitters in the National League, and even more rarely, position players have been deployed as pitchers in blowouts.
As one evaluator mused about Ohtani’s journey the other day, however, he mentioned that a position player -- a utility player, such as Ryan Flaherty (a former Oriole who is currently a free agent) or maybe Charlie Culberson of the Braves -- might be used semiregularly as a reliever. The preparation for the enhanced role would probably need to start in spring training, he said, when the two-way reliever/position player could throw on the side and pitch in exhibition games, etc., and managers could practice implementation.
And in the spring, managers could begin an important part of this process: Explaining the logic to reporters, who in turn would explain it to fans.
Let’s say the Minnesota Twins are down 8-2 going into the bottom of the seventh inning, and Paul Molitor’s bullpen has been somewhat stressed. He could turn to his two-way reliever to take the seventh and eighth innings -- catcher Chris Gimenez, perhaps -- and it’s possible that the score would get somewhat ugly. But Molitor could explain that by doing this in what is almost certainly a lost game, rather than using a more important reliever, he is actually increasing the chances of winning the next day or the day after that.
If you could save a roster spot this way -- using a position player/pitcher to eat up a couple of innings a week -- that could be incredibly valuable, the evaluator said.
The Padres tried to do something like this last spring, with catcher Christian Bethancourt. But he struggled to throw strikes, and because manager Andy Green had to pull him, it left San Diego shorthanded behind the plate, which is why this sort of role would probably need to be an infielder or an outfielder.
There are times during every team’s season when a reliever will eat up two or three innings in a lost game and the manager will praise that work because the other pitchers were protected from use. This is what a two-way position player/pitcher could do.
No star prospect would ever be asked to fill a role like this, of course, because of the risk of injury. But for other position players fighting for a spot in the big leagues, the ability to throw strikes and be competitive as a pitcher could be a coveted asset.
Or, if a position player demonstrates an off-speed pitch that makes him particularly effective against lefty or righty hitters, he could become part of a sequence of moves for a manager: He could be brought into the game to face an opposing hitter for a favorable matchup, then switch to a position when the next reliever is summoned.
If teams follow through with these sorts of concepts and try to develop two-way players, it would become part of the legacy of Ohtani, who has executives re-examining long-established boundaries.
News from around the majors
The Baltimore Orioles aren’t close to being satisfied with any of the small handful of offers they received for Manny Machado, and so general manager Dan Duquette has suggested that the team will move on under the assumption that Machado will be with the team in 2018. But those conversations could restart quickly with just one phone call, because the Orioles are more open-minded than they ever have been before to the idea of trading Machado, who will walk away as a free agent next fall.
But Machado’s status is just one of many factors that makes this a crossroad year for the Orioles, an organization built on a passionate fan base. Zach Britton will likely be traded in July or August if his rehabilitation from a torn Achilles proves successful, and center fielder Adam Jones, the team’s clubhouse leader, is entering the final year of his contract. So is Duquette. So is manager Buck Showalter.
It’s a crucial period for the organization with a lot at stake, because if the Orioles don’t get these moves right, the abyss that seems to be forming ahead of them would be even deeper than expected. The Baltimore farm system is perceived by rival evaluators to be thin, and the Orioles will need a lot of help in 2019 and beyond.
With so much at stake, it would make sense for the Orioles’ leadership -- above Showalter and Duquette -- to decide the composition of the front office. If owner Peter Angelos wants to keep Duquette, he should settle that now, girding the GM’s standing before he goes through the pivotal decisions in the next calendar year.
There has been some talk among other teams that Showalter might move from the dugout to the front office, to help oversee baseball operations. If that’s what Angelos wants, he should do that now so that Showalter will have greater authority in the Machado and Britton choices.
The Orioles probably should have seriously considered moving Machado and Britton two years ago -- or last winter or last summer -- to realize optimal trade return. Now the Orioles probably will have to be comfortable accepting 80 cents on the dollar in value for Machado if they trade him before the season, and maybe 60 cents on the dollar if they deal Machado and/or Britton in July. They might not get more than draft picks in return if they keep Machado through the season, which seems a distinct possibility, given Angelos’ long-established aversion to full-blown teardowns.
But whoever executes those trades should be someone assured of being part of the Orioles’ future beyond what could be a difficult season in 2018. Angelos should make that choice sooner rather than later.
• In the aftermath of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ money-shedding blockbuster trade with the Atlanta Braves, there has been broad speculation among columnists that L.A. is getting itself under the luxury-tax threshold in 2018 to facilitate a big run at one of the potential free agents next fall -- maybe Bryce Harper or Manny Machado.
Yet there is absolutely nothing in the history of Andrew Friedman’s work since taking over the Dodgers’ baseball operations that he might be interested in jumping into the sort of massive 10- or 12-year contract that would be required to land one of the elite free agents. Rather, he has preferred shorter-term obligations of three or four or five years, to reduce risk. He passed on a Giancarlo Stanton trade at least partly because of concerns about how the back end of the 10-year obligation with Stanton would play out.
Rival execs note that the Dodgers face a renegotiation with Clayton Kershaw next fall. “They’ve got to pay their own Hall of Famer first,” said one AL official. It would be a surprise to some of Friedman’s peers if he and the Dodgers dive headlong into the Harper and Machado pursuit.
• The Boston Red Sox still have interest in adding a hitter such as J.D. Martinez and seem prepared to wait out agent Scott Boras as he tries to maximize return in a market in which very few teams seem willing to spend big dollars on free agents. As we reported the other day, some agents already are forecasting a bloodbath for veteran free agents because of how some traditional big-spenders such as the Dodgers and Yankees are slashing payroll, and because a number of other teams won’t spend because they are -- you can choose the word you find appropriate -- tanking or rebuilding.
• There is a deep split of opinion within the San Diego Padres organization about whether the pursuit of Eric Hosmer is the right thing for the team to do at this time. Hosmer would be the leader of a group of developing young players in 2018 and 2019, but with enormous holes in the rotation, the Padres don’t appear close to contending with the Dodgers in the immediate future. If San Diego gave Hosmer a big-money deal -- and at the winter meetings, the buzz among executives was that the Padres were prepared to invest about $120 million over six years -- then Hosmer might start to decline at about the time the team started to turn the corner.
But the Padres certainly have the payroll flexibility to gamble on Hosmer or some other player: San Diego has only $7 million committed to player contracts in 2019; Wil Myers is the only player in the organization with a contract containing guaranteed dollars beyond ’19. (His back-loaded deal gets very expensive in 2020, 2021 and 2022, at $22.5 million annually.)
Hosmer’s agent, Boras, can wait because the Royals will wait for Hosmer. Whether he’s ready to sign before the new year or in spring training, Kansas City would like Hosmer back as a Tony Gwynn-type legacy anchor, as they go through their next rebuilding cycle.
• Despite repeated rumors about Josh Donaldson’s availability, the Toronto Blue Jays fully intend to open the 2018 season with him as their third baseman and lineup anchor. Coming off a season in which they drew 3.2 million fans in spite of a myriad of pitching injuries and struggles, they will look to contend. Donaldson will be eligible for free agency next fall.
• So far, the most money negotiated in a contract this winter is $60 million -- over three years to Carlos Santana, by the Phillies. No free agent has gotten a deal of four years or more.
• ICYMI: A podcast on the fight over installing lights at Wrigley Field.
And today will be better than yesterday.