Former Blue Jay Munenori Kawasaki weighs in on Shohei Ohtani’s big decision

“My hope is [for Ohtani] to go to a team other than the Angels. My hope is that he goes to a strong team. I want to see Shohei-san in action in the playoffs.”

Toronto Blue Jays v New York Yankees - Game One
Toronto Blue Jays v New York Yankees - Game One / Jim McIsaac/GettyImages

Former Toronto Blue Jay infielder Munenori Kawasaki has weighed in on the Shohei Ohtani ‘hot stove’ conversation. Speaking on TV Asahi’s “Masahiro Nakai's Caster Club'' last Saturday, November 25th, the now-42-year-old once-popular Jay offered his insight and opinion on the big decision.

Kawasaki played in 201 games over three seasons as a backup infielder for the Blue Jays from 2013-2015 after starring for the Fukuoka Hawks in Japan. He was a fan favourite, endearing himself to Blue Jays fans by playing the game the right way, hustling, bunting, and running hard on the basepaths, to make up for his lack of power and .240 something batting average.

In the interview, Munerin (Kawasaki's nickname in Japan) said, “My hope is [for Ohtani] to go to a team other than the Angels.'' He continued, saying that, “My hope is that he goes to a strong team. I want to see Shohei-san in action in the playoffs.”

Playoff action is certainly something the Blue Jays might be able to offer after three postseason trips in the past four years, young stars like Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in their prime, and an outstanding pitching staff led by starters Kevin Gausman, Chris Bassitt, José Berríos and Yusei Kikuchi, plus a shutdown bullpen headlined by closer Jordan Romano.

However, taking a non-consensus view, Kawasaki guessed that 29-year-old Ohtani will stay with the Angels, saying, “I think I'm pretty much the only one who has made that prediction,'' as laughter erupted in the studio. He does believe “Shohei-san definitely wants Los Angeles”, and admitted that the Dodgers could be the front-runners in that market: “It's nice. (The climate) is warm.''

Noting that the Angels haven’t been to the playoffs in nine seasons, Kawasaki went on to say, “[the Angels] created an environment that's easy for Shohei to play in. Shohei wants to win, but more than anything he wants to play. He wants to pitch every day. He wants to hit every day. But when the team changes again, it's a matter of whether or not he accepts the conditions.”

It sounds like a dealbreaker will be Ohtani’s insistence on being able to both pitch and hit once he’s recovered from his elbow surgery for a torn UCL on Sept. 19. According to Dr. Neal ElAttrache, who performed the procedure in Los Angeles, Ohtani is expected to be free of restrictions as a hitter in 2024 and resume pitching in 2025. 

That wish to resume pitching in 2025 certainly matches up with the Blue Jays needs given Yusei Kikuchi is a pending free agent after 2024, and the club’s MLB level starting pitching depth remains thin after Alek Manoah, Bowden Francis, Mitch White and top prospect Ricky Tiedemann.

Ohtani has now won two AL MVP awards in his six MLB seasons, and placed 4th in AL Cy Young voting in 2022. He wasn’t able to pitch in 2019 after undergoing Tommy John surgery following his first season with the Angels in 2018. Given other pitchers like Nathan Eovaldi and Jameson Taillon have returned from a second major elbow procedure to succeed as MLB starters, the second procedure doesn’t necessarily mean he can’t be an effective pitcher again.

In five seasons as a starter - all with a bad Angels team that has never had a winning record since he arrived in LA - Ohtani has a 38-19 record and 3.01 ERA over 86 starts and 481.2 innings, with a 3.30 FIP, 1.082 WHIP and ERA+ of 142, i.e. 42% better than MLB average. His 608 strikeouts equate to 11.4 Ks/9 innings pitched.

His 2023 pitching line on a 4th place (73-89) Angels team was close to his career averages with a 10-5 record, 3.14 ERA and 11.4 Ks/9 over 23 starts and 132.0 innings before his injury. He’s also fiercely competitive, as evidenced by his ‘death stare’ before striking out Mike Trout to clinch the World Baseball Classic in March.

What Ohtani can do for the Blue Jays in 2024 is provide a power left-handed bat to protect George Springer, Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in the lineup, and break up a heavily right-handed hitting batting order after the loss of lefty swinging Brandon Belt and Kevin Kiermaier to free agency.

Ohtani led the AL with 44 home runs in 2023, as well as with his .412 OBP and .654 slugging percentage, which led to an insane OPS of 1.066 and OPS+ of 184, 84% better than the average MLB hitter.

Kawasaki offered one last tidbit in his interview last weekend, saying that Ohtani could look for a shorter term deal like three years, “and then I’d sign a big 10-year contract in the year I turn 32.” That might make some sense from the perspective of his desire to start again in the majors: see how things go for a few season through his recovery from the elbow surgery, and make sure the team he signs with is comfortable with him both hitting and pitching after their big investment?

As the Winter Meetings start in Nashville, the Ohtani decision is certainly top of mind. The fact the Blue Jays are still involved in the bidding should make Blue Jays fans very happy, even if Kawasaki thinks he’ll stay with one of the Los Angeles-based teams.