Two-way player Shohei Ohtani didn’t perform like the star the Angels had hoped would carry their rotation and lineup last year. He faltered at the plate. He wobbled on the mound. Playing in empty ballparks throughout the division, he barely resembled the phenom who both pitched and hit at a level unseen in more than a century.
The potential of Ohtani, 26, nonetheless remained tantalizing as the season drew to a close. Heading into his first year of arbitration eligibility, he seemed poised to net a considerable raise for next season.
And yet Ohtani’s 2021 case is unresolved. Ohtani was the only one of six arbitration-eligible Angels not to agree a contract at the deadline Friday. The Angels agreed to deals with starters Dylan Bundy and Andrew Heaney, catcher Max Stassi and relievers Felix Peña and Mike Mayers.
“Both sides agree he deserves a raise,” first-year general manager Perry Minasian said of Ohtani, who reportedly asked for $3.3 million, $800,000 more than the Angels were willing to commit. “Just how much is the question. We weren't able to come to an agreement but at the end of the day that's why this process is in place.”
The Angels will wait on an arbitrator to decide Ohtani's salary. Hearings on arbitration cases usually take place at the beginning of spring training, though there is a chance the timeline is moved as the league determines how to approach its second coronavirus-impacted season.
The Angels historically have been a “file-and-trial” team, meaning they don’t settle on financials with players before a hearing occurs. But they’ve rarely needed to rely on that method, having settled on all arbitration salaries ahead of the deadline for eight consecutive seasons before outfielder Brian Goodwin refused to budge last winter. He ultimately won the case, in which he argued against third-party lawyers hired by the Angels.
Ohtani is expected to arrive at spring training fully recovered from the forearm strain that cut short his return to the mound in 2020. He has had no setbacks rehabbing the injury. But he may have a hard time proving he’s worth the raise he seeks over his 2020 preseason salary of $700,000. He totaled a mere 1 2/3 innings over two early season starts and batted a woeful .190 with 50 strikeouts in 153 at-bats.
Still, the Angels are banking on a rebound from Ohtani. And a revival would change the complexion of a rotation that posted a 5.52 earned-run average, the second-highest mark in baseball.
Ohtani upended the sport in 2018 before succumbing to an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery at the end of his debut season. He pitched 51 2/3 innings over 10 starts, went 4-2 with a 3.31 ERA and struck out 63. He showed off a powerful arsenal that featured a triple-digit fastball and a nasty splitter batters hit at a .026 (two for 55) clip.
He hasn’t pitched with regularity since then. When he attempted a comeback last summer, he walked eight of the 16 batters he faced and labored to throw at his usual mid-to-high 90s velocity.
Bundy handily picked up Ohtani's slack and was rewarded for it. He will earn $8.325 million this season, a raise of $3.325 million over his preseason 2020 figure. He had a 6-3 record and 3.29 ERA in 11 starts, one of which was a complete-game effort. He had three outings with double-digit strikeouts, including a 12-punchout game against the Texas Rangers.
The Angels agreed to pay Heaney $6.75 million. The figure is a $2.45-million raise over what he had been scheduled to earn in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out more than half of the season. Healthy for a full season for the first time in years, Heaney posted a 4.46 ERA and struck out 70 over 66⅔ innings.
Mayers, a waiver claim who had a team-best 2.10 ERA, will make $1.2 million. Peña, the main architect of the Angels’ 2019 no-hitter, proved himself a reliable bullpen option in 2020. He agreed to a $1.1 million salary.
Stassi will make $1.6 million, a salary double what he was awarded through arbitration last year. The 29-year-old had long been viewed as a defense-oriented catcher but he coupled his top framing ability with a breakout at the plate. He batted .278 with seven home runs and two doubles and hit the ball harder than he ever had. Despite having October hip surgery, Stassi will be expected to take on the brunt of the work behind the plate in 2021. He will get some help from veteran Kurt Suzuki, who was signed Friday as a reinforcement.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.