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Angels' Shohei Ohtani progressing, won't be ready for Opening Day

Shohei Ohtani has been making steady progress in his recovery from Tommy John surgery, but he will not be ready by Opening Day, Los Angeles Angels general manager Billy Eppler said on a conference call Thursday.

Ohtani, the Japanese two-way star who will only be available as a designated hitter in 2019, has been cleared to begin full strength training as early as Friday. But that is only the precursor for dry swings, which would be followed by hitting off a tee, then batting practice, which will involve a methodical advancement to live pitching.

The Angels, unsurprisingly, are being exceedingly cautious.

Eppler called it "a multilayered progression."

"To pinpoint a timetable is unrealistic," he said, "but what is clear is that his progression will not allow him to be active for Opening Day."

Ohtani was a phenomenon last season, becoming the first player since Babe Ruth to adequately fill dual roles as a pitcher and a hitter. The 23-year-old put up a .925 OPS in 367 plate appearances and a 3.31 ERA in 51 2/3 innings, feats that made him the American League Rookie of the Year.

But Ohtani suffered a Grade 2 sprain of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow in early June and didn't fully heal with conservative treatment, prompting him to undergo Tommy John surgery shortly after the regular season. The Angels will allow Ohtani to hit while he recovers as a pitcher so that he can return to the starting rotation in 2020, which is currently the final year of Mike Trout's contract.

The uniqueness of Ohtani's recovery has prompted the Angels to avoid having him hitting two new milestones within one week. For example, he would not progress toward hitting off a tee and move back to his flat-ground work in the same week. The Angels would separate each activity, a cautious measure that will delay his recovery even further.

"Each event is a new level, for lack of a better word," Eppler said. "We're going to move level to level. We know the steps, but it's harder to frame the timeline."

Up until this point, Ohtani has only been able to strengthen his lower half. But Dr. Neal ElAttrache was "really pleased" with Ohtani's strength and range of motion in a follow-up visit last week, Eppler reported. Ohtani can begin swinging a bat -- without making contact with a baseball -- once his upper-body strength returns to a normal level.

Ohtani, Albert Pujols and the newly signed Justin Bour will rotate plate appearances at DH and first base this season. Pujols underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in late August, but Eppler said he has been "hitting for a while" and has gradually increased the intensity of his weight training.

"Everything has been encouraging up to this point," Eppler said of Pujols. "We're excited to get the whole group back together here in Tempe soon."