Shohei Ohtani is an interesting dude, for so many reasons. For inquisitive baseball fans, he provides all sorts of fodder. I am a big fan of Ohtani. He has many special characteristics, which go beyond being a two-way player.
One of those characteristics is that he chose to come over to MLB two years before he could have signed for boatloads of cash. Had Ohtani waited until after the 2019 season, he could have signed for whatever a team was willing to offer. By coming over this past offseason, he could only sign a uniform player contract. The same contract given to draftees or international free agents as young as 16. Ohtani did receive a few million in the form of a signing bonus, but it was uncontroverted that he was not making his decision based on money.
There was talk that Ohtani might start this season in the minor leagues. He struggled in spring training, and the Angels could have extracted an extra year of team control by keeping him down for about three weeks. This type of service time manipulation is common if not totally accepted by baseball pundits. But it would be particularly unseemly for the Angels, having won the lottery when Ohtani chose them, to take part in this type of chicanery.
The Angels put Ohtani on the opening day roster, and if you were alive and even a casual baseball fan, you know what happened next. Ohtani lit the world on fire as both a pitcher and a hitter from the start. Ohtani throws a triple digit fastball and it was always assumed that he was going to end up providing more value as a pitcher. But through the first half of the season, Ohtani has a 145 wRC+ in 157 plate appearances. He has identical 1.1 fWARs from both sides.
However, Ohtani’s storybook beginning to his career has taken a major blow. His pitching elbow is possibly in need of Tommy John surgery. It is possible that surgery is inevitable the Angels are simply waiting until the end of the season. From a “maximizing utility” standpoint, this makes a lot of sense. If Ohtani were to go under the knife right now, he’d most likely not pitch until 2020, and would certainly be off the mound for a large portion of next season even under the best-case scenario. He would also be unable to hit for several months, probably the rest of this season. The Angels would lose Ohtani the pitcher for 2018 and 2019 and Ohtani the hitter for 2018. However, if he has Tommy John surgery at the end of the season, he can continue to hit, and the most likely outcome is that he still just misses one additional season as a pitcher. He could continue to be Ohtani the hitter in 2018 and in 2019. *
* It’s also possible that by waiting Ohtani could avoid the surgery altogether
Now comes the fun(?) part. If Ohtani were a pitcher the same way that every other major league pitcher is a pitcher, he would be on the disabled list while he recovered from Tommy John surgery. Importantly for his financial future, his service time clock would continue to run. There would be no risk of him being sent down to the minors and having his clock stop. * This raises the question: what happens if Ohtani the hitter struggles mightily and the Angels feel it is necessary to send him to the minors? Now, this seems unlikely to happen, both because of Ohtani’s strong offensive start and the solid history of top Japanese imports performing at the major league level. While this is certainly something that could happen, I am approaching this mostly as a thought experiment.
* Ohtani would need to spend 20 or more days in the minor leagues in order to lose major league service time that would push back his free agency year
I am a lawyer, but far from an expert in this area. The best I can do is to review the collective bargaining agreement and see if there are any provisions that might shed light on this. The basic rule about demoting injured players is far from detailed: “Players who are injured and not able to play may not be assigned to a Minor League club.” A player who believes his assignment is unjust can file a grievance. I didn’t read the entire CBA, but I don’t see anything else in it that would address this situation.
By the plain reading, you could say that the Angels would be perfectly within their rights. Ohtani would not be “injured and unable to play.” While he could very much say he is injured, he is also very much able to play. Ohtani could argue that the spirit of the rule would not allow him to lose service time due to the fact he is a superior enough player that it was at least thought that he could continue to be valuable as a major league player even without pitching. You shouldn’t be able to “punish” someone because they are better than everyone else. As a matter of plain fairness, this argument is as solid as an Ohtani bomb deep into the Southern California night.
Again, Ohtani seems unlikely to make this scenario a reality. But Brendan McKay is coming up the Rays system. It is possible we will see more two-way players. Looking beyond just Ohtani, it is very much conceivable that this could become an issue at some point. It makes sense for MLB and the union to figure this out before it becomes an embarrassing (international) incident.