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Shohei Ohtani expects to be ready to hit by opening day

DodgerFest Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — A total of 29 current Dodgers players were present for DodgersFest on Saturday afternoon, a celebration of the team in front of over 35,000 fans at Dodger Stadium. This is a team with other former MVPs and established stars, but by far the largest roar from the crowd, the most palpable buzz was created for Shohei Ohtani, the new man in town.

“It’s my first time standing in front of all the Dodger fans with my Dodgers jersey on,” Ohtani said Saturday, through interpreter Ippei Mizuhara. “It’s a great feeling and I can’t wait.”

The wait won’t last much longer, with Dodgers pitchers and catchers reporting to Camelback Ranch in Arizona on Thursday, with the first workout on Friday. The first full-squad workout is on February 14, when the love-fest renews in full.

Ohtani had elbow surgery in September, which will keep him off the mound during the 2024 season. He’ll still hit, which is quite significant considering Ohtani led the majors in slugging percentage (.654), OPS (1.066), and wRC+ (184) last season, and led the American League in home runs (44) and total bases (325) despite playing only three games in September.

After his Tommy John surgery in October 2018, Ohtani stuck to only hitting in 2019 for the Angels, but also didn’t play at all until May 7 that season. This year, Ohtani says he’s on track to be ready to play when the Dodgers open their season in Seoul, South Korea on March 20 against the Padres, reiterating what he said during his introductory press conference on December 14.

Ohtani said he’s been hitting soft toss and off of a tee at Dodger Stadium, and plans to start hitting in the cages once he reports to spring training in Arizona.

“If very confident that I’m right on schedule — not ahead or behind schedule,” Ohtani said Saturday. “As long as there’s no setbacks going forward, I should be ready.”

Ohtani, who won the AL MVP in both 2021 and 2023, will hit somewhere in the top third of the Dodgers lineup, along with 2018 AL MVP Mookie Betts and 2020 National League MVP Freddie Freeman. Betts and Freeman finished second and third, respectively in NL MVP voting last year, and were each in the top five in 2022.

In the last four seasons, Ohtani, Betts, and Freeman each have three top-five MVP finishes.

“It’s a good problem to have, where you don’t know where to hit people,” Freeman said Saturday. “I don’t think it matters where any of us are going to hit, as long as we score more runs at the end of the game.”

In what order Betts, Freeman, and Ohtani will hit isn’t yet set in stone.

“I don’t know that the first three on opening day is going to be seamless for the entire season,” manager Dave Roberts said Saturday. “It might happen, but I want Mookie and Freddie and Shohei to be a part of the conversation.”