Hernández: Shohei Ohtani's time with Angels has not been a waste. It's elevated him to be who he is now

Anaheim, CA - July 21: Angels starting pitcher and two-way player Shohei Ohtani is congratulated.

Shohei Ohtani remains an Angels player only in a technical sense.

The Angels placed Ohtani on the 15-day injured list with a strained oblique muscle on Saturday and ruled him out for the remainder of the season. The morning after the conclusion of the World Series, the 29-year-old Ohtani will officially become a free agent.

If he prioritizes winning as much as he says he does, he’ll be playing elsewhere next year. In his six years with the Angels, he didn’t play in a single playoff game. He didn’t even play a single season in which the team finished with a record of .500 or better.

Read more: Angels star Shohei Ohtani to miss the remainder of the season

That doesn’t mean Ohtani made a mistake by starting the major league portion of his career with the Angels. That doesn’t make his time in Anaheim a waste.

Before departing Japan six years ago, Ohtani said he was heading to the major leagues to become the No. 1 player in the world. He’s become that, and the Angels are a reason why.

As disappointing as it was that a team with both Ohtani and Mike Trout couldn’t make the postseason, this period shouldn’t be viewed entirely as a failure. Something special emerged from the Angels’ continued dysfunction, an unprecedented three-year stretch in which a country boy from the northern part of Japan’s mainland was one of the best hitters in the majors while also one of the top pitchers.

“Obviously, he’s had three of the greatest, if not three of the greatest years, any player has ever had,” general manager Perry Minasian told reporters at Angel Stadium.

With another team, Ohtani still might have risen to the sport’s top spot. Such is the magnitude of his talent. But it wouldn’t have looked the same.

While the shock of seeing a player so easily move back and forth between the batter’s box and mound has gradually dissipated over the last three years, there was a time when Ohtani’s ability to play both ways was in question.

He was the best hitter in Nippon Professional Baseball, but not everyone was convinced he could hit in the major leagues. Once he established that he could, the skepticism shifted to his pitching, as industry veterans asked whether he should risk reinjuring his elbow when he was one of the most talented offensive players in the game.

Another team might have gradually turned him into a full-time pitcher — or tried to convince him to focus on hitting as he struggled to recover from tearing the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow for the first time, in 2018.

The Angels didn’t do any of that. They were as committed to his vision as he was. If they couldn’t win games, they could at least maintain a degree of relevance by being Shohei Ohtani’s team.

So they extended him every chance to realize his personal goals. They even pushed him to do more than he’d previously imagined.

In his first spring training with the Angels, Ohtani batted .125 and registered an earned-run average of 27.00. A different team might have sent him to the minors. The Angels placed him on their opening day roster and he went on to win the American League rookie of the year.

The Angels' Shohei Ohtani reacts during a game against the Philadelphia Phillies.

Recovering from reconstructive elbow surgery, Ohtani didn’t pitch in 2019. He returned to the mound in 2020 but was shut down after only two starts. The Angels made no effort to limit him to hitting.

In fact, the Angels increased his workload, with general manager Perry Minasian and Joe Maddon informing Ohtani before the 2021 season that he would no longer have days off the days before and after he pitched. When Minasian and Maddon have recounted the story of Ohtani’s transition into an everyday two-way player, they have said he was excited by the prospect. In reality, Ohtani viewed the development with suspicion, wondering if this was an attempt by the organization to focus on a particular discipline.

Whatever the Angels’ motives, the change in schedule taught Ohtani that he was capable of doing more than even he’d previously imagined. He won the MVP award that season. He might win another this year.

Not everything went as planned, however. When Ohtani turned pro as an 18-year-old with the Nippon-Ham Fighters, they were rebuilding in the wake of Yu Darvish’s move to the United States. Ohtani and the Fighters grew together. By the time Ohtani was a legitimate two-way player, the Fighters were ready to contend. With Ohtani as their leader, the Fighters won the Japan Series in 2016.

In the major leagues, Ohtani also required time to become a legitimate two-way player. Except here, the Angels didn’t progress with him. Even when Ohtani became the best player in baseball, the Angels’ efforts to build a winner continued to be obstructed by a weak farm system, as well as Arte Moreno’s penchant for funneling a majority of the payroll to just a couple of players, which created unbalanced rosters.

The disparity between Ohtani’s stature and the Angels’ created a power imbalance. Over time, the Angels became powerless to say no to Ohtani, who insisted on playing every game until he strained his oblique almost two weeks ago. The lack of oversight very well could have contributed to Ohtani’s injuries.

The relationship feels now as if it has run its course.

Read more: Hernández: Despite his injuries, the Dodgers want to sign Shohei Ohtani and are his best option

Minasian said Ohtani will soon undergo a “procedure” to repair the torn UCL in his elbow to maximize his chances to be ready for opening day next year. Ohtani will presumably be in the uniform of another team — a team that will provide him with the support he’ll require to be a two-way player again in 2025 and beyond; a team has the smarts to keep him healthy and the gravitas to enforce measures designed to protect him from himself; and, perhaps most important, a team with a chance to win.

The Dodgers offer the most logical choice. Some major league executives believe Ohtani has an affinity for the Boston Red Sox. The two New York teams, San Francisco Giants, Texas Rangers and Chicago Cubs also figure to be in the mix.

Minasian said he hoped Ohtani would remain in Anaheim “for a long time.” The Angels will attempt to re-sign him.

In reality, the Angels don’t match the description of a team that can elevate his career beyond this point. However, they helped him get this far, to a place no player was ever expected to reach. That counts for something.

Get the best, most interesting and strangest stories of the day from the L.A. sports scene and beyond from our newsletter The Sports Report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.