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What Shohei Ohtani means for the future of baseball

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The two-way sensation could have an impact on the sport he loves that extends far beyond his own performance.

Japan v Mexico - International Friendly Photo by Masterpress/Getty Images

In an offseason mostly devoid of action, the enormous majority of the buzz has been centered around a few players.

By the time February rolls around, Giancarlo Stanton will have a new home. Mike Moustakas and J.D. Martinez employ Scott Boras, and Scott Boras is doing Scott Boras things. Fans are grappling with the value of Yu Darvish, trying to determine if his miserable World Series performance is foreshadowing a stark decline.

Most significant, though, is the stateside journey of Japanese sensation and Nippon Ham Fighters star Shohei Ohtani.

Obviously, one of the things that is so exciting about Ohtani is that he is more than capable both with the bat and on the mound. A potential ace, his fastball reaches 102 and he has a bevy of offspeed pitches that grade out very well. His dangerous bat will also slot in nicely at the middle of any modern day lineup. This diverse and elite skill set is one that has not been seen in the league for nearly a century. It is easy to see why teams are tripping over themselves to talk to this extraordinary young ball player.

What's most extraordinary about this particular circumstance is that Ohtani will likely be allowed to do it all.

In today's game, the concept is almost taboo. The only two players of any significance with experience playing as both a pitcher and at the plate are the San Diego Padres' Christian Bethancourt and the Tampa Bay Rays' Brendan McKay. Bethancourt is a poor facsimile for either a major league backup catcher or a reliever, and will likely fade into anonymity when the novelty of his situation wears off. McKay, a 2017 first-rounder, has only 42 games as a professional under his belt, 36 coming at first base.

The reason that players who both hit and pitch are forced into a single role is two-fold. Teams want to mold their young players into stars. Focusing on one aspect of their game or the other allows them to hone their craft to the highest level possible instead of trying to pay attention to too many things at once. Furthermore, professional ballclubs are usually extraordinarily cautious when it comes to the health of their most promising prospects, and they are unwilling to risk their health by stretching them too thin and exhausting them.

Prospects don't come much more promising than Ohtani and therefore, the team who land him is going to do their best to shelter him. However, due to the extreme restrictions placed on the signing bonus that may be awarded him, he has quite a bit more leverage than most international free agents. He loves both pitching and batting, and he has been forthright about using his leverage to achieve this outcome. It is unlikely that he will end up on a team that refuses to let him play both ways.

The team that signs Ohtani will have an impact on the future of the sport that extends far past the placement of a new potential star. The way he performs could have an effect on the way that every team plays the game of baseball.

Japan v Netherlands - International Friendly Photo by Masterpress/Getty Images
Japan v Netherlands - International Friendly Photo by Masterpress/Getty Images

There are quite a few ways that this situation could play out, but they can be put into the two obvious categories of good and bad.

On the perfect world end of the spectrum, Ohtani would quickly establish himself as one of the best players in the league, terrorizing opposing pitchers and batters alike. This would be most easily seen on an American League team, where he could pitch every fifth day and split duties as a part-time designated hitter. It is even possible possible that a National League team would allow him to continue as a speedy, cannon-armed outfielder.

If this were to happen, it is likely that we will see two-way players show up on the professional level far more often.

Take for example Hunter Greene. Selected second overall by the Cincinnati Reds in 2017, he also played the field and would have been a good bet to be drafted in the first round as a shortstop. However, they gave up on him as a position player after a mere 30 plate appearances. If there had been track record of a player like Ohtani performing well, it is very possible that the Reds would have been more patient with Greene, perhaps even allowing him to continue on the field.

While baseball fans don't really want to admit it, there is a decent chance that Ohtani will be unable to live up to his billing. Over five years with the Nippon Ham Fighters, he struck out 27.01% of the time, including a 27.27% rate in 2017. That is a troubling. Pitching in the MLB is far superior to that in Japan, and that rate will likely rise sharply. Not only that, it wouldn't be a surprise if he were plagued by walks as a pitcher. His stuff is positively electric, that's true, but he sometimes struggles to command it. If everything goes wrong, he could perform at a truly awful level.

If this were to happen, it would likely spell the end of two-way players for a long time. As discussed earlier, major league teams are already skittish when it comes to allowing players to pitch play at a position. If Ohtani — the player most likely to succeed in this sort of role in recent memory — cannot make it work, that will be the death knell for any future hopefuls. If the seemingly ideal player fails, why would teams let anyone else try?

In either case, the future of baseball is exciting. Players are getting better, managers more creative, and front offices more clever. Seeing it unfold day after day is truly a gift. If Ohtani performs well, that will only serve to create a new and interesting wrinkle to the operation of the sport; if he doesn't, it will create a new tally in the book of "unwritten rules." In either case, when watching how he adapts to the MLB in 2018, keep an eye on what it will mean both now and in seasons to come.