Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2018 — No. 4: Shohei Ohtani, two-way threat

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We’re a few short days away from 2019 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2018. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

Shoehi Ohtani’s posting and signing late in 2017 was a big story last year, but it paled compared to the impact he had in 2018.

The hope was that Ohtani would be a fine major league pitcher who would spot in at DH once between starts and provide some occasional pop. In the event, the fine pitching was more than fine and the hitting was far better than anyone expected. He was a true two-way threat, the likes of which baseball has not seen in a century when Babe Ruth played both ways for the Boston Red Sox.

At the outset it didn’t look like it’d be that way. Ohtani struggled early in spring training, looking lost at the plate in Arizona. Once the season began, however, he turned it on, hitting .341/.383/.682 with four homers as the Angels’ DH in the first month of the season. He likewise turned heads as a pitcher early, striking out 12 in seven one-hit shutout innings against the Oakland Athletics on April 8, showcasing electric stuff. Not all of his outings were that good, of course, but the mere fact that he was making them while hitting a high level was unprecedented in living memory.

As the season wore on, the hitting continued to be exceptional and, actually, improved and, overall, his rookie year was tremendous. He posted a batting line of .285/.361/.564 (152 OPS+) with 22 home runs — 13 of them coming in August and September — 61 RBI, 59 runs scored, and 10 stolen bases in 367 plate appearances. On the mound, he went 4-2 with a 3.31 ERA (126 ERA+) and a 63/22 K/BB ratio in 51.2 innings. Was that Babe Ruth? No, not exactly. But some argued that it was the equivalent of stapling Boog Powell to a young Tim Lincecum and turning them into one player. Which, eww, but that’s pretty cool!

You know by now, of course, that Ohtani’s season wasn’t all beer and Skittles. He was diagnosed with a sprained UCL in early June and that put his pitching on ice for a couple of months. With the exception of a single two-inning outing in September he simply stopped pitching and worked mostly full-time as a DH. Ohtani finally underwent Tommy John surgery after the season and will not pitch again until 2020. He is expected, however, to be able to hit more or less full time in the coming year.

The second coming of Babe Ruth? Not exactly, but that was always an unreasonable ask. He was something just as rare, though, and that made Shohei Ohtani‘s debut season a big, big story.

Texas Rangers ink free-agent ace Jacob deGrom to 5-year deal

Jacob deGrom
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ARLINGTON, Texas — Jacob deGrom is headed to the free-spending Texas Rangers, who believe the health risk is worth the potential reward in trying to end a six-year run of losing.

The two-time Cy Young Award winner agreed to a $185 million, five-year contract Friday, leaving the New York Mets after nine seasons – the past two shortened substantially by injuries.

“We acknowledge the risk, but we also acknowledge that in order to get great players, there is a risk and a cost associated with that,” Rangers general manager Chris Young said. “And one we feel like is worth taking with a player of Jacob’s caliber.”

Texas announced the signing after the 34-year-old deGrom passed his physical. A person with direct knowledge of the deal disclosed the financial terms to The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the club did not announce those details.

The Rangers were also big spenders in free agency last offseason, signing shortstop Corey Seager ($325 million, 10 years) and second baseman Marcus Semien ($175 million, seven years).

The team said deGrom will be introduced in a news conference at Globe Life Field next week following the winter meetings in San Diego.

“It fits in so many ways in terms of what we need,” Young said. “He’s a tremendous person. I have a number of close friends and teammates who played with Jacob and love him. I think he’s going to be just a perfect fit for our clubhouse and our fans.”

Texas had modest expectations after adding Seager, Semien and starter Jon Gray ($56 million, four years) last offseason but still fell short of them.

The Rangers went 68-94, firing manager Chris Woodward during the season, and then hired Bruce Bochy, a three-time World Series champion with San Francisco. Texas’ six straight losing seasons are its worst skid since the franchise moved from Washington in 1972.

Rangers owner Ray Davis said the club wouldn’t hesitate to keep adding payroll. Including the $19.65 million qualifying offer accepted by Martin Perez, the team’s best pitcher last season, the Rangers have spent nearly $761 million in free agency over the past year.

“I hate losing, but I think there’s one person in our organization who hates losing worse than me, and I think it’s Ray Davis,” Young said. “He’s tired of losing. I’m tired of losing. Our organization is tired of losing.”

After making his first start in early August last season, deGrom went 5-4 with a 3.08 ERA in 11 outings. He helped the Mets reach the playoffs, then passed up a $30.5 million salary for 2023 and opted out of his contract to become a free agent for the first time.

That ended his deal with the Mets at $107 million over four years, and deGrom rejected their $19.65 million qualifying offer in November. New York will receive draft-pick compensation for losing him.

The fan favorite becomes the latest in a long line of ace pitchers to leave the Mets for one reason or another, including Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden and David Cone.

The Rangers visit Citi Field from Aug. 28-30.

When healthy, deGrom is perhaps baseball’s most dominant pitcher. His 2.52 career ERA ranks third in the expansion era (since 1961) behind Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw (2.48) and Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax (2.19) among those with at least 200 starts.

The right-hander is 4-1 with a 2.90 ERA in five career postseason starts, including a win over San Diego in the wild-card round this year that extended the Mets’ season. New York was eliminated the next night.

A four-time All-Star and the 2014 NL Rookie of the Year, deGrom was a ninth-round draft pick by the Mets in 2010 out of Stetson, where he played shortstop before moving to the mound. He was slowed by Tommy John surgery early in his career and didn’t reach the majors until age 26.

Once he arrived, though, he blossomed. He helped the Mets reach the 2015 World Series and earn a 2016 playoff berth before winning consecutive NL Cy Young Awards in 2018 and 2019.

But injuries to his elbow, forearm and shoulder blade have limited him to 26 starts over the past two seasons. He compiled a career-low 1.08 ERA over 92 innings in 2021, but did not pitch after July 7 that year because of arm trouble.

DeGrom is 82-57 with 1,607 strikeouts in 1,326 innings over nine big league seasons. He gets $30 million next year, $40 million in 2024 and 2025, $38 million in 2026 and $37 million in 2027. The deal includes a conditional option for 2028 with no guaranteed money.

The addition of deGrom gives the Rangers three proven starters along with Gray and Perez, who went 12-8 with a career-best 2.89 ERA in his return to the team that signed him as a teenager out of Venezuela. Young didn’t rule out the addition of another starter.

With several holes on their starting staff, the Mets have shown interest in free agents Justin Verlander and Carlos Rodon to pair with 38-year-old Max Scherzer atop the rotation.

Now, with deGrom gone, signing one of those two could become a much bigger priority.