MLB employment contract opens door for Shohei Ohtani at 2023 World Baseball Classic

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Los Angeles Angels two-way player Shohei Ohtani smiles during a news conference at the team’s spring training ground in Tempe, Arizona March 15, 2022. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) — After an injury kept him from attending the 2017 World Baseball Classic, Los Angeles Angels two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani now appears on track to compete in a year when the tournament comes after a six-year hiatus is resumed.

The 2023 edition, originally scheduled for March 2021 but postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic after the 2020 qualifying rounds were postponed, was in doubt until MLB reached an agreement with its union on a new labor contract and owners ended their lockout .

Ohtani was on course to attend WBC 2017 as the reigning Japan Pacific League MVP, but he injured his ankle at the 2016 Japan Series and aggravated it in Japan’s international friendlies in November.

Though Ohtani was unfit — his bat was sorely missed when Japan lost 2-1 to eventual tournament-champion United States in the semifinals — baseball fans in 2023 have a delicious opportunity to see him star, too, at The Mound.

The thought of having Ohtani play for Samurai Japan probably influenced the choice of Hideki Kuriyama as national team manager. Kuriyama was selected in December to replace Atsunori Inaba at the helm of the team.

During his tenure as manager of the Nippon Ham Fighters, Kuriyama helped Ohtani achieve his dream of contributing with a ball and racquet.

After winning their first two WBCs in 2006 and 2009, Japan overhauled their organization after losing to Puerto Rico in the 2013 semifinals under a makeshift coaching staff. Since then, Japan’s managers and staff have been chosen well in advance and have had years to plan.

Inaba left after leading Japan to the Tokyo Olympics gold medal, giving Kuriyama little more than a year to prepare for 2023. After fielding a team with no active MLB players in 2017, Kuriyama may have Japan’s all-time strongest team at his disposal.

In addition to Ohtani, Kuriyama could also have the San Diego Padres’ Yu Darvish, the Orix Buffaloes’ Yoshinobu Yamamoto, the Rakuten Eagles’ Masahiro Tanaka and current SoftBank Hawks ace Kodai Senga in his rotation.

While defense is Japan’s calling card, Kuriyama will have some veteran power hitters to choose from: Ohtani, Pittsburgh Pirates’ Yoshitomo Tsutsugo and slugging outfielder Seiya Suzuki.

As the quality of pitching in Japan begins to approach what hitters see from MLB hurlers, Japan’s homegrown big boppers with no MLB experience could have fewer problems in the finals, where Japan has faltered the last two times.

Yakult Swallows’ Munetaka Murakami and Tetsuto Yamada, Yomiuri Giants’ Kazuma Okamoto, Hawks’ Yuki Yanagita and Orix’s Masataka Yoshida are all contenders to give Samurai Japan that extra pop that they often lacked in the finals.

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