* Roberto Osuna, considered one of the game’s top prospects, is back on the upward path through the Blue Jays minor league system after Tommy John surgery. The Mesa Solar Sox right-hander earned Arizona Fall League all-star honors. Photos: Alexis Brudnicki. ….
Letters of Intent
By Alexis Brudnicki
MESA, Ariz. – Roberto Osuna makes a strong impression everywhere he goes.
As a 16-year-old, the right-hander pitched for the Mexico City Reds in the Mexican League, where the circuit’s average age was almost 13 years older than Osuna. He held his own and the Toronto Blue Jays signed him as quickly as they could.
The organization sent the flamethrower to the rookie-class Bluefield Blue Jays to start his professional career, where he was so impressive against competition that was 3 1/3 years older on average that he earned a promotion to class-A Vancouver Canadians.
“In Vancouver he was absolutely dominant as an 18-year-old, mowing through teams,” one baseball executive said. “He pitched against [big leaguers] in spring training and he did a nice job. He looked comfortable and it’s probably because he was exposed to such high-level competition at a young age, getting experience in the Mexican League as a 15-year-old. He’s a very confident guy on the mound and there’s not too much that phases him.”
As an 18-year-old, Osuna moved up to class-A Lansing Lugnuts before being sidelined last year with damage to his throwing elbow, resulting in Tommy John surgery to replace his ulnar collateral ligament. Though he found the rehabilitation process tough, he came back and was throwing in a game less than a year after the procedure.
“It was a long year and a little bit frustrating,” Osuna said. “I wanted to work hard to recover very fast, like I did … I love playing baseball and I love this organization, so I wanted to come back really fast. I did exactly what they told me and [learned] that if you just put 100 per cent into your job everything will become easy, like a routine, and that’s why I’m here.”
After throwing just one rehab inning in the Gulf Coast League, Osuna moved up to the class-A Dunedin Blue Jays for seven starts, working 22 innings to finish the season. In order to get some more time in on the mound, the Blue Jays sent the hard-throwing prospect to the prestigious Arizona Fall League, where he was named one of the circuit’s Fall Stars.
“I was very, very excited to get this opportunity to play here [in Arizona], to try to face better hitters; good hitters with more experience,” Osuna said. “This is a pretty good league. I wanted to go play in Mexico also but [I can’t], so this is a good time with good hitters and good players.”
The 19-year-old native of Sinaloa, Mexico is the third-youngest player in the Fall League currently, and while he has struggled with his control he hasn’t looked out of place in the prospect-laden setting. He believes with more time on the hill the results will come back and is using his time with the Mesa Solar Sox to continue progressing forward.
“I’m trying to get ready for next year,” Osuna said. “I can’t throw a strike right now so I’m trying to get my control and work on my mechanics and my changeup to try to get everything ready for the next year.”
The young hurler who has gained an impressive understanding of the English language since starting to play pro ball with Toronto just three years ago sees his mechanical issues as a part of the recovery process.
“I feel healthy; I’ve just got to keep working,” Osuna said. “I don’t feel 100% with my arm but I will be for the next year … It’s because I went for one year without pitching so I think it’s normal to feel a little bit weird and [that’s why] I can’t throw a strike. It’s part of the process so I will be ready for spring training.”
While he was rehabbing, Osuna had a lot of helping hands to guide him through the process.
“In Mexico, it was my dad [Roberto] who helped me,” he said. “I was with him all the time. When I went to play, I was with Willie Collazo from Puerto Rico who was in the GCL, and Tony Caceras, he was in extended [spring training] so they were with me all the time. And a couple of the trainers Jeff Stevenson and Jose Ministral worked with me.”
Working his way back under careful watch in Dunedin with the Blue Jays, one difficult aspect of Osuna’s rehab was being away from his twin 12-year-old brothers Pedro and Alex for so long. When the young catcher and centre fielder came to visit for a weekend in Arizona, Osuna couldn’t have been happier.
“I was so excited,” Osuna said. “I haven’t seen them since I went to Florida and that was in February, so it was a really good weekend. I brought my brothers to the field and they were so happy, so it was a great time … They are so happy [for me]. I remember the first time they came into the clubhouse they said, ‘Oh brother, this is so nice.’ It was really good.”
None of the rehabilitation was easy, but the most challenging time for the righty came immediately upon his return.
“The hardest part was when I started throwing bullpens,” Osuna said. “I felt something weird in my elbow again so I was a little bit scared. And the organization was asking me, ‘Osuna how do you feel?’ and then I knew it was a little bit bad so I think that was a hard moment for me.”
Ranked as one of Major League Baseball’s top 100 prospects leading into both the most recent season and the year prior, Osuna felt some added pressure leading up to his return.
“I’m going to be honest, yeah I feel pressure,” he said. “It was hard to concentrate when I saw a couple guys were behind me, but it’s part of the game. I work here and the thing is I’ve got to stay healthy and try to do my job and then we’ll see what’s going to happen next year.”
Though it was difficult, the highlight of Osuna’s career so far was the moment he got out on the mound for the first time after his surgery, which he said was exponentially better than even making his professional debut.
“When I came back from Tommy John, I was so excited,” Osuna said. “It was a long year, a lot of work, and a lot of pressure on me and everybody. I was so excited when I was on the mound. I was thinking, ‘I’m here again,’ and I felt so blessed. I mean I threw one inning and the next day I was so sore but I was so excited at the same time. I was so happy.”
As he continues to work his way back, Osuna also has a little bit of a different look about him. Still listed at 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, the flamethrower lost 15 pounds while working out throughout the rehab process and has plans to lose a few more, as long as it doesn’t affect his velocity.
“I’m just working and it’s helped me with a little bit of cardio every day,” Osuna said. “I mean, I’m feeling pretty good. I’m throwing 96, 97, 98, so I think it could be great if I lose eight or 10 more pounds. I’ve just got to be careful. If I’m see something wrong [with my velocity] I’m going to stop.”
Still a work in progress, it would seem as though everyone around baseball is still incredibly excited to see what Osuna’s future holds.
“The velocity has climbed back up closer to what it has been in the past,” the baseball exec said. “He was an elite-level prospect for Toronto before his Tommy John and there’s no reason he can’t get back to that with his surgery out of the way. As far as where he starts and how many innings he gets next year, that remains to be seen but you can see glimpses of what he’s done in the past.”
Follow Alexis Brudnicki on Twitter @baseballexis