Ohtani Makes Spring Training Debut for Los Angeles Dodgers

It’s Shohei Ohtani day for the Los Angeles Dodgers Tuesday at Camelback Ranch. It’ll be Yoshinobu Yamamoto day Wednesday at Surprise Stadium.

Ohtani, the two-way player who will not pitch this season after right elbow surgery, hit second in the Dodgers’ lineup for his first at-bats this spring as the team took on the Chicago White Sox. Ohtani struck out on three pitches in his first at bat before grounding into a double play in the third inning. He then hit a two-run home run to left field in the fifth inning to finish one for three. The Dodgers won, 9-6.

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“It’s exciting, it really is,” manager Dave Roberts said before Tuesday’s game. “Just seeing Shohei in the lineup certainly makes us a lot better. There’s been quite the anticipation.”

Yamamoto will make his first start against the Texas Rangers. He’ll go two innings, Roberts said. The top two free agents on Major League Baseball’s free agent market this offseason signed this past December for a combined $1.25 billion.

Ohtani inked a 10-year deal for $700 million. Most of it was deferred, but it’s still the richest contract in MLB history. Yamamoto was posted in December and signed for 12 years, $325 million, all in cash.

That figure didn’t include the posting fee back to the Orix Buffaloes, Yamamoto’s Japanese League team. The $50.7 million is a result of a complicated equation that pays the originating club $16.9 million per $100 million spent by the MLB club.

The only surprise of the first glimpse of Ohtani in the Dodger lineup was his batting slot, but the slugger was unfazed. “No matter where I’m hitting in the lineup I’m not going to change my approach. I just try to swing at strikes,” Ohtani said in an interview after the game. Just getting back on the field was itself a win. “I definitely felt the energy of the crowd, the fans,” Ohtani said. “I’m very appreciative that I was able to make it back on time and play in front of the fans.”

Roberts opted to split up Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman, who’ve very successfully batted in the top two spots since Freeman signed as a free agent prior to the 2022 season.

“For me, Mookie has thrived in the leadoff spot, being the ignitor,” Roberts said. “I feel like having Shohei hitting ahead of Freddie gives Shohei a lot of protection. With his foot speed, he’ll steal some bases, score from first base. It made a lot of sense to me.”

To that point, Freeman hit 29 homers and drove in 102 runs last year, hitting behind Betts. With Betts and Ohtani hitting ahead of him, Freeman should have even more run-producing opportunities.

It’s a short spring for the Dodgers, who travel to South Korea for games March 20-21 to open the regular season against the San Diego Padres. Thus, Roberts will get a taste of the lineup configuration, but could very well eventually flip-flop Ohtani and Freeman, hitting ahead of clean-up hitter Will Smith.

“We’re going to do this for a while,” Roberts said. “What ‘a while’ means, I don’t know right now. It’s not set in stone. It’s still got to work and make sense.”

Ohtani played his first six season for the Los Angeles Angels and signed with the team just up the freeway after months of protracted free agent negotiations. During his time with the Angels, he won the American League MVP trophy twice, including this past season.

During the 2023 season as a hitter alone, Ohtani led the Majors in home runs (44), on-base percentage (.412), slugging percentage (.654), OPS (1.066), OPS-plus (184) and total bases (325). He batted .304 and knocked in 95 runs. As a pitcher, he was 10-5 with a 3.14 ERA and 167 strikeouts in 132 innings across 23 starts before the elbow injury.

All these numbers are unprecedented, but they’re more unreal considering he didn’t pitch a game after Aug. 23 and stopped hitting for the season on Sept. 3 because of an oblique injury. He had the elbow surgery on Sept. 20.

But after almost a six-month absence, it was Sho-time in Arizona Tuesday.

(This story has been updated with Ohtani’s results in the second paragraph and a quote in the seventh paragraph.)

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