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Heyman | Up-and-down Ohtani flashes brilliance

Jon Heyman

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Feb 24, 2018; Tempe, AZ, USA; Los Angeles Angels pitcher Shohei Ohtani (17) warms up prior to the game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Tempe Diablo Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports
Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

PHOENIX – In what seemed like a private workout for scouts and media only, Shohei Ohtani showed his otherworldly talents, throwing four different pitches — including a slider that looked like a whiffle ball (at least to Brewers B team players) — and hitting 97 mph on the gun despite struggling with the mound and a B-quality umpire.

No matter the oddities – including a crowd that included about three fans (rough estimate) among the 200 in attendance (the rest were writers, camera people, scouts and MLB execs) – Ohtani looked at times like the world-class talent that caused about 27 of 30 teams to swoon over him and spend weeks selling and sucking up in the attempt to procure him. The Angels are the lucky ones, assuming they can endure some extra media attention that comes with an improved rotation, better lineup and tens of millions of dollars in extra ticket and marketing opportunities for the two-way star. I think they can.

This was only Ohtani’s second time out this spring, and of course there will be bigger adjustments than an Arizona mound and a beer-league quality umpire along the way for a 23-year-old who’s come across the world and had seemingly all the cameras in Japan follow him here. Considering the handicaps in the morning game, Ohtani did OK – eight strikeouts among the 12 outs he got, many on that devilish slider that made Brewers hopefuls look silly at times.

Ohtani employed all four pitches, but he wasn’t quite perfect (that might be a bit unrealistic for a second time out in spring). Three groundball hits led to two runs in a second inning cut shorter by an out by unanimous consent of the teams, and young Brewers hitting sensation Keston Hiura roped a double into the gap.

“The slider was really sharp,” said one scout who noted that he “spiked a few splitters.” (Catcher Rene Rivera concurred, noting that the slider was “really nasty” and that a few Brewers hitters were “jumping back” in reaction to it.)

“He had good run on his two seamer (fastball),” another scout noted.

That scout noted how impressed he was that Ohtani dialed it up to 96 and 97 (a couple times) when a runner reached third base after sitting in the 93-94 range most of the time, in the style of Justin Verlander, he said.

“That takes real maturity.” But he also noticed that the slider “flattened out” by the end. Yet another scout noted that he might need to throw a few more strikes.

Scouts get paid to notice both the good and bad. But anything less than eventual stardom on the mound would be a disappointment for the kid who’s come to the U.S. to show he can be the best two-way player since Babe Ruth. (He reached base all three times in his first game hitting the other day, on two walks and a hit.)

He’s part curiosity, part talent extraordinaire. And there will be plenty of eyes on him as he goes (though Friday’s crowd was limited by the catch that you had to have a ticket to the A game to be admitted. My opinion: the gate was probably increased by a few hundred bucks, but it would be nice to let fans see him for nothing since he’s playing for practically nothing, at least compared to his talent, with a sacrifice on his part of approximately $20 million for this year alone).

Ohtani is interviewed constantly but he seems like a quiet fellow.

“I was in the zone with all my pitches compared to last time,” he said through an interpreter. He probably meant the strike zone, not the American phrase for performing his best. But in either case, he was awfully impressive for a fellow who looked uneasy at times out there.

Angels ace Garrett Richards also likes what he sees so far.

“Obviously, everything’s there,” Richards said. “He’s got a really clean delivery and he throws downhill. It’ll be exciting to watch him evolve.”

It could take a few more outings to see him at his current best, and maybe a even a couple years to reach stardom (don’t forget, he won’t turn 24 until the summer). But also don’t forget, he isn’t an ace yet. He is, however, an undeniable talent who has the potential to funnel maybe $100 million — or more — into the Angels’ coffers.

Speaking of the $2.3 million (all the Angels had in international monies) he signed for, even the scout who detected a flaw or two summed it up this way:

“That’s a steal.”

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Jon Heyman is an MLB Insider for FanRag Sports, featuring breaking news, information and his Inside Baseball column, which appears on FanRagSports.com every Thursday. Heyman also has been an insider at MLB Network since the channel launched in 2009 and is a regular contributor to WFAN in New York, where he appears weekly on the Joe and Evan Show and previously appeared on the Mike and the Mad Dog Show. He also appears on WSCR in Chicago, WBZ-FM in Boston and the Petros and Money Show on Fox in Los Angeles. Heyman comes to FanRag Sports from CBSSports.com, where he worked for five years and wrote the popular Inside Baseball notes column. Before going to CBS, Heyman worked for five years at Sports Illustrated and SI.com, where he was a senior writer and started an Inside Baseball Column. Heyman worked for 16 years at Newsday in New York, where he was the Yankees beat writer, a baseball columnist and finally a general sports columnist. Heyman started his career at the Moline (Ill.) Daily Dispatch, then moved to the Los Angeles Copley Newspapers (Torrance Daily Breeze and Santa Monica Outlook) before going to Newsday. Heyman at one time also served as a national baseball writer for The Sporting News. Heyman is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. The Santa Fe, N.M. native grew up in Cedarhurst, N.Y., on Long Island.

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