Shohei Ohtani tells his side of the story; how the Astros can keep the dynasty intact

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Shohei Ohtani spoke about the gambling scandal that has set the baseball world ablaze, the Rangers might have a superstar in Wyatt Langford, and we have season previews for the Astros and Brewers. I’m Levi Weaver, here with Ken Rosenthal — welcome to the Windup!

Shohei Ohtani’s side of the story

Yesterday, for the first time since this betting story broke, Shohei Ohtani spoke publicly. He didn’t take questions, but he did detail his side of the story for nearly 12 minutes.

You can read the entire statement here, but Ohtani was adamant that he has never gambled on baseball or any other sport. He also said that he knew nothing about the gambling or the alleged theft until his former interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, spoke to the team in Korea.

There are approximately a thousand other questions, but here’s what I keep coming back to:

• Why did a “crisis communications specialist” from Ohtani’s camp initially quote Ohtani as saying, “Yeah, I sent several large payments. That’s the maximum amount I could send,” before the story later changed to Ohtani knowing nothing?

• If Mizuhara’s résumé was, as Sam Blum reported over the weekend, rife with inconsistencies, how did he get the job interpreting for Ohtani in the first place? As reported by Britt Ghiroli, Mizuhara was the interpreter for English players on the Nippon Ham Fighters, the team Ohtani played for in Japan, so it’s possible that Ohtani simply chose him and that was that. But the inconsistencies are basic — shouldn’t they have raised a red flag?

• For that matter, how does this (as reported by Fabian Ardaya) happen? “Every communication from the Dodgers, agent Nez Balelo or his representatives at CAA went through Mizuhara, even without Ohtani present. That meant no one from the Dodgers or CAA supposedly ever talked to Ohtani directly about the looming story involving Mizuhara before the interpreter addressed the club after Wednesday’s season opener.” (Emphasis mine.)

Who even knows what new revelations today will bring? Go ahead and bookmark this page; we’ll update as things develop.

Ken’s Notebook: Rangers rave about rookie Langford

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Many people around the Rangers have something to say about Wyatt Langford. (John E. Moore III / Getty Images)

From my story today on Rangers rookie Wyatt Langford:

The Rangers took Langford with the fourth overall pick last July. Eight months later, he will be in their Opening Day lineup, likely batting somewhere in the middle of their order as the DH. And this isn’t a rebuilding team, mind you. These are the defending World Series champions.

Los Angeles Angels first baseman Nolan Schanuel, the 11th overall pick in 2023, beat Langford to the majors, making his major-league debut last Aug. 18 after just 97 minor-league plate appearances. Schanuel acquitted himself well, producing a .402 on-base percentage. But he is not the offensive wrecking ball Langford, 22, threatens to be.

Consider Langford to this point:

  • At Florida: 1.217 OPS (610 plate appearances)
  • In the minors: 1.157 OPS (200 PAs)
  • At spring training: 1.161 OPS (63 PAs)

In one day at Rangers camp over the weekend, I heard people with the team compare Langford to Mookie Betts (for the way he recognizes pitches), Ryan Zimmerman (for the maturity he has shown while rapidly ascending to the majors) and Mike Trout (for the physical resemblance; Langford is listed at 6-foot-1, 225 pounds, Trout 6-2, 235. Both bat right-handed).

No one said Langford would be as successful as those players. Everyone recognizes he will struggle like all rookies struggle, and all veterans, for that matter. But the professional manner in which Langford handles himself, both in the batter’s box and the clubhouse, leaves players and club officials rather uninhibited in their optimism.

To think: The Rangers boast not just one of these guys, but two. Remember Evan Carter? Second-round pick out of Elizabethton (Tenn.) H.S. in 2020. Major-league debut last Sept. 8. Postseason stalwart during the Rangers’ title run, batting .300 with a .917 OPS.

Any advice for Langford, Evan?

“I don’t know what to tell him,” said Carter, who is a year younger than Langford. “I’ve never had an Opening Day before. I’ve never played a full season in the majors. I don’t know what to think.”

Third baseman Josh Jung, who is all of 26, summed it up for him.

“We got a 21-year-old and a 22-year-old, and they make our lineup better,” Jung said. “That’s crazy.”

Astros’ rotation replacements will be key

ZiPS projected record: 89-73
2023 record: 90-72

You might have forgotten, given how the season ended, but the Astros are the reigning AL West champs (for the sixth time in seven years). But it wasn’t as dominant a performance in 2023 — the Astros held first place for just 15 days and finished the season with the same record as Texas, earning the division title on a tiebreaker.

By comparison, they won their five previous titles by an average margin of 11 1/2 games.

Is the dynasty crumbling?

The answer will likely lie in how well their “next guys up” perform on the mound, both in the rotation and in relief. Justin Verlander will start the season on the IL, as will José Urquidy. Lance McCullers Jr. and Luis Garcia won’t be back until the second half. So they’ll need good seasons from Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier, and it’s make-or-break time for Hunter Brown.

The bullpen lost three very good relievers to free agency (and Kendall Graveman will miss the entire season). But with the addition of Josh Hader, it’s still not a terrible bullpen, and middle relief is one of the easier areas to address, if necessary.

Meanwhile, the lineup is intact, and probably even improved, with Yainer Diaz (.846 OPS in 377 plate appearances in 2023) taking over the starting catching duties with Martín Maldonado (.606 in 407 PAs) gone. José Abreu and Jeremy Peña had down years last year and should be better this year.

It’s not like the Rangers or Mariners did a ton to really separate themselves from the pack. If new manager Joe Espada can navigate a shaky rotation, (another) division title could be forthcoming.

Key departures: MGR Dusty Baker, OF Michael Brantley, C Martín Maldonado, RHP Phil Maton, RHP Hector Neris, RHP Ryne Stanek

Key arrivals: MGR Joe Espada, 1B/OF Trey Cabbage, C Vic Caratini, RHP Dylan Coleman, LHP Josh Hader

Prospect corner: Nobody on Keith Law’s list of top 20 Astros prospects made his Top 100 list, but outfielder Joey Loperfido turned heads in camp this year before being sent to minor-league camp on Sunday.

Squint and you’ll see reasons to believe in Brewers

ZiPS projected record: 80-82
2023 record: 92-70

The Brewers lost a lot of talent this offseason, including Corbin Burnes, who has finished in the top 10 in NL Cy Young voting in each of the last four years (winning the award in 2021). But Burnes might not have been the biggest loss, considering manager Craig Counsell defected to the Cubs and (former) president of baseball operations David Stearns is now with the Mets.

Oh, and closer Devin Williams will miss around three months with stress fractures in his back.

That sounds like a disastrous offseason, but if you squint real hard, there’s a shot the Brewers could still be fun this year. The lineup has potential, with Christian Yelich and mega-prospect Jackson Chourio in the outfield, and Rhys Hoskins, who — assuming he’s fully recovered from last year’s ACL injury — can smash home runs with pure violence. The bullpen still has Joel Payamps, Hoby Milner and Abner Uribe, and all were fantastic last year.

As for the rotation … Hmm, squint a little harder. More. Keep going until your eyes are firmly closed, actually.

Freddie Peralta struck out 210 hitters last year — no, don’t open your eyes just yet. Brandon Woodruff will miss the entire year after shoulder surgery, leaving Wade Miley, Colin Rea, Jakob Junis and DL Hall. They’re all big-leaguers, but it’s hardly the glory days of a few years back.

I think the ceiling for this team is a wild-card contender. The floor? The floor is lava. Avoid the floor.

Key departures: MGR Craig Counsell, RHP Corbin Burnes, OF/1B Mark Canha, C Vic Caratini, LHP Andrew Chafin, 3B Josh Donaldson, RHP Adrian Houser, LHP Eric Lauer, 1B Darin Ruf, 1B Carlos Santana, OF Tyrone Taylor, 1B Rowdy Tellez, INF Abraham Toro, LHP Justin Wilson, OF Jesse Winker

Key arrivals: MGR Pat Murphy, 1B/OF Jake Bauers, RHP Taylor Clarke, C Eric Haase, LHP DL Hall, 1B Rhys Hoskins, LHP Bryan Hudson, RHP Jakob Junis, INF Joey Ortiz, RHP Joe Ross, C Gary Sánchez

Prospect corner: If you’re looking for less-squinty optimism, Keith Law’s list of top 20 Brewers prospects is pretty stacked, headed up by Chourio, who Law has as the No. 2 prospect in the sport. Five other Brewers prospects also made that top 100 list.

Handshakes and High Fives

If you love The Windup (newsletter), please welcome The Windup (podcasts), including Starkville, The Roundtable, and Stephen Nesbitt’s Friday Show (probably not the official name). For details (and a logo of a cool robot), click here!

There are no active players with 300 wins, 500 home runs, or 3,000 hits. Jayson Stark asks: who could change that?

More previews! Our staff takes a look at the AL Central and NL Central.

Dan Hayes digs in on the moment Pablo López became an elite pitcher: when he discovered his sweeper.

MLB The Show: video game? Or scouting tool? Both, says Eno Sarris.

Just in time for Opening Day, the Power Rankings are back. The top two won’t surprise you. The order … also probably won’t surprise you. (But maybe it will?)

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(Top file photo of Shohei Ohtani and Ippei Mizuhara: Christian Petersen / Getty Images)

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