Big-league camp leaves strong impression on Blue Jays’ Greene

Jays prospect Conner Greene talks about the surreal feeling of pitching his first game in a major league uniform, and is amazed by the support group within the organization.

TAMPA, Fla. – To some extent the big leagues have now been demystified for Conner Greene, who returns to minor league camp having faced big league hitters and retired them. Perhaps as importantly, the 20-year-old right-hander has now played alongside players he grew up cheering for.

“I’m star-struck still,” Greene said Wednesday, the day before the Blue Jays sent him down. “I caught one of Russell Martin’s home run balls (at Dodger Stadium) when I was maybe 14 years old. Brad Penny. R.A. Dickey, guys like that. I’m in awe every day. Now that I get to wear the same uniform as them it’s just incredible.”

The Toronto Blue Jays started paring down their group of 34 pitchers Thursday, sending Greene and Wil Browning to minor league camp. The next stop has yet to be determined for Greene, but it’s a safe bet that he’ll spend much of the season at double-A after reaching New Hampshire in 2015.

That’s on the field. Off of it, Greene has a background in acting and modelling, an appreciation for surfing and a friendship with Charlie Sheen. He says his off-field interests don’t distract him from what he’s trying to accomplish. Baseball’s the priority.

“I have baseball first 100 percent,” he said. "I would even consider just never acting ever again if it comes down to it. Baseball means that much to me.”

When he takes the ball, he’s anything but a laid-back Californian.

“I like to be a stone cold mean guy even though everyone knows I’m soft as the next guy in the clubhouse,” Greene said. “On the field it’s good to have almost an anger. A calm, collected chaos.”

Greene’s fastball reached 98 mph again Wednesday, when he pitched a scoreless inning against the Tampa Bay Rays, but it wasn’t until he reached Class A Lansing last year that he started throwing 98 mph regularly. “What the heck happened?” he wondered. He hadn’t changed his delivery, but his continued physical development allowed him to throw harder than before.

“Luckily I haven’t dropped back down since,” he said.

Greene, who doesn't turn 21 until next month, has lanky 6’3” frame that he’s aiming to fill out with more muscle. He thrived at class-A Lansing and class-A Dunedin last year before struggling in five starts at double-A New Hampshire. His overall numbers were stellar: a 3.54 ERA with 115 strikeouts in 132.1 innings.

He said Wednesday that he’s ready for the next challenge, wherever the Blue Jays have him start the season.

“It comes down to being a man about it,” he said. "If you’re going to just place your head down and have bad body language every day you’re not going to get anywhere. You might as well enjoy it. You’re playing baseball. What else could you want to do? It’s the best sport. It’s America’s sport and we’re just out here.”

The invitation to big league camp shows that the organization has noticed Greene’s talent. He has work to do in the upper minors, where he'll work on everything from developing his three-pitch mix to refining his pickoff move.

Still, he'll likely open the 2016 season just a couple stops away from a city he knew little about when the Blue Jays selected him in the seventh round pick in the 2013 draft.

“I knew they had a big old pointy building and after that nothing else," he said. "The Raptors played there and the Blue Jays played there, and the Leafs. That’s about it. And it was cold. And in the summer I heard it was pretty nice. After that? Nothing.”

Greene may not know a lot about Toronto, but if his progress continues at this rate, Toronto will soon hear lots about him.