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Shohei Ohtani has tear in UCL, won’t pitch again this season

After being pulled early from yet another start, we finally have an answer on what’s been ailing the two-way sensation — and it could alter the landscape of the entire league as Ohtani nears free agency this winter.

Los Angeles Angels manager Phil Nevin (center) meets with starting pitcher Shohei Ohtani (17) at the mound during the second inning against the Cincinnati Reds at Angel Stadium. Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

After the Angels superstar was pulled early from yet another start on Wednesday due to arm trouble, we finally have an answer to what’s been ailing Shohei Ohtani — and it’s something close to the worst-case scenario.

Ohtani has been diagnosed with a tear in the UCL of his pitching elbow, per Angels GM Perry Minasian. It’s unclear whether it’s a complete tear or a partial tear, and whether Ohtani will require surgery to fix it — or what it means for his future as a pitcher. All we know for now is that he won’t pitch for the remainder of the 2023 season, while continuing to serve as the Angels’ DH for the rest of the year (or as long as he’s physically able, at least):

Given his nagging health problems over the past few weeks, it’s fair to wonder just when exactly Ohtani first suffered the tear. He was pulled from consecutive starts back in July with both a nagging blister issue and a cracker fingernail — but he never missed a turn in the rotation, even flirting with a no-hitter against the Tigers at the end of the month. On August 8, though, Ohtani was forced to exit early again: The team initially called the issue cramping in his pitching hand, but in the days that followed they announced that Ohtani would be taking a break from pitching duties due to “arm fatigue”.

In hindsight, that probably should have set off more alarm bells, especially in a season that’s seen so many top-tier pitchers lost to elbow injuries. But after just two weeks away from the mound — and with the Angels floundering despite going all-in at the trade deadline — Ohtani returned to start Wednesday’s game against the Reds. It was clear almost immediately that he wasn’t right: The righty’s fastball velocity was significantly down, and after just 1.2 innings of work, he was removed following a brief conversation with a team trainer.

A few hours later, Minasian finally announced that Ohtani had suffered a UCL tear — although it’s still not totally clear whether the Angels knew, or should have known, about the diagnosis earlier. (Of course, it’s also possible that Ohtani — who’s still yet to reach the postseason and hasn’t been shy about voicing his desire to do so — was informed of the tear but insisted on trying to pitch through it.)

Either way, it’s completely devastating news — for Ohtani, for the Angels, for the entire baseball world — and it raises several questions whose answers could impact the entire league. For starters: What does this mean for the remainder of Ohtani’s season? Minasian made it sound as though the the 29-year-old would remain in L.A.’s lineup, delaying the decision about his elbow until the offseason; he served as the team’s DH the night-cap of their doubleheader last night, so it would seem as though they injury isn’t enough to prevent him from taking at-bats. (We saw a similar situation play out last year with Bryce Harper, who tore his UCL in the middle of the season but delayed surgery until the winter serving exclusively as the Phillies’ DH and helping the team reach the 2022 World Series.)

Harper, however, didn’t have a future on the mound to consider, and he was also playing for a team whose playoff hopes were still very much alive. After dropping both games against Cincy on Tuesday, however, Los Angeles’ Wild Card hopes seem to have officially flatlined. The team has now lost four in a row and sits 10.5 games back of the Seattle Mariners for the third and final AL spot. Given the reality of the standings, it would be more than understandable if Ohtani decides to shut it down entirely as he gets set to enter quite possibly the most significant free agency in the history of the sport.

As Ohtani rampaged through the league this summer — at the end of play Wednesday, he still leads the Majors in both OPS+ and ERA+, which is just ridiculous — speculation began to run rampant about just how big a contract he would command after hitting the market this winter. It’s still very possible that he lands that historically-unprecedented megadeal, but it’s impossible to know until we have more clarity on the nature of the elbow tear and his prognosis moving forward.

Maybe Ohtani doesn’t wind up needing surgery; pitchers have played through partial tears before, including his countryman and childhood hero Masahiro Tanaka. Even if he forgoes Tommy John, though, the diagnosis will loom over every team as they decide whether they want to make a run at Ohtani — and how much they’re willing to spend to do so. Could we see Ohtani receive essentially two contracts: one half reflecting his worth as one of the best hitters in the game, and the other loaded with innings incentives to reflect the uncertainty around his pitching future? It might make the most sense for Ohtani to pull a modified version of what Harper did last year: Have the surgery now, then spend all of 2024 exclusively as a DH with the knowledge that he’ll be ready to take the mound again in 2025. That will give both he and prospective teams some clarity, while ensuring that we’ll all get to watch Ohtani in some capacity next season.