DUNEDIN, Fla. – Conner Greene knew he had work to do once the 2016 season ended.
Granted, it was a productive year in many ways. The 21-year-old threw a fastball approaching 100 m.p.h. and posted a 3.51 ERA all while facing older competition for the Toronto Blue Jays’ Dunedin and New Hampshire affiliates. After what Greene described as a “good learning curve season,” Baseball America ranked him fourth among Blue Jays prospects.
Still, he wondered if he was capable of more, and having already experienced some success, he felt a pull.
“Progress is addicting,” Greene said, “And I’m addicted to the progress. I’m addicted to the thrill of this game.”
As he contemplated his off-season plans, Greene realized he had a decision to make: stay at home in California, where he grew up, or move to Dunedin, Fla., to work out with others in the Blue Jays organization. After weighing the pros and cons, he headed to Florida, joining the likes of J.A. Happ, Josh Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki.
“I thought ‘this is the place I have to be,’” Greene said. “I made the decision to come here.”
He soon established a routine: wake up, eat, work out. Eat again, nap, return, work out a second time. That schedule included functional movement work, extensive lifting, and pool work. It demanded six meals a day.
“Not necessarily massive meals,” Greene noted. “Three big ones and some good-sized ones in between.”
Lots of carbs, lots of protein and a nightly dose of Italian food, usually pasta and chicken. After months of “stuffing food down,” Greene has gained close to 20 lb. of muscle.
“He looks great,” manager John Gibbons said recently. “He’s starting to turn into a man. He’s still a young kid, but he’s only going to get bigger and stronger naturally. He’s been really focused.”
Greene had some help in that respect. Among the many Blue Jays players working out in Dunedin over the winter was Aaron Sanchez, the defending American League ERA leader.
“You look at a kid like him, and through my eyes, I see me,” Sanchez said. “I see a tall slender kid that has really explosive stuff that doesn’t really know what to do with it yet.”
As recently as a couple seasons ago, Sanchez was in Greene’s position as a top prospect with an electric arm but some uncomfortably high minor-league walk rates. Now Sanchez ranks among the game’s top up-and-coming young pitchers.
Realizing that they have “similar goals, similar mindsets and similar bodies,” Greene turned to Sanchez for advice.
“He has a champion mentality, and not a lot of people have that,” Greene said. “A lot of people are talented, but not a lot of people have that champion mentality. I’m trying to have that exact mentality.”
Sanchez, who’s three years older than Greene, has been aware of his teammate’s potential for years having preceded him on a California youth travel team. This off-season he saw an opportunity to help Greene convert that promise to results.
“I knew there was potential for him to help this squad,” Sanchez said. “The best way to explain it is he could be at T and you have U, V, W, X, Y, Z before he gets to the big-leagues. If I can speed that process up just enough for him to get on track, that’s what I was looking to do.”
So when Sanchez worked out, Greene observed. When Greene had questions, Sanchez answered them.
“I can’t be Aaron Sanchez. I’m going to be Conner Greene,” the prospect said. “But I’m going to have the same work ethic and the same get-after-it mentality. You have to if you want to be one of the best in the world.”
To get there, Greene will first have to conquer double-A hitters. In 12 starts for the Fisher Cats last year he posted a 4.19 ERA with 48 strikeouts in 68.2 innings. He walked 33 batters, though, and acknowledged his command ‘could be a lot better.’
Greene’s fastball, the best in the Blue Jays’ minor-league system according to Baseball America, has been clocked at 100 m.p.h. He missed his spots too often, however, and his 2016 walk rate rose to unpalatable levels as a result. Greene, who grew up as a control pitcher, said he can rediscover that feel for pitching if he continues working on repeating his release point.
“I’ve got to remember that time and still be a pitcher, not a flame-thrower,” Greene said. “I want to be a smart pitcher out there and not just a power pitcher that’s out there hucking it and hoping.”
For at least one Blue Jays pitcher, there was a connection between improved conditioning and improved command.
“When I did gain all the weight and I did get stronger, a lot of that (command) took care of itself,” Sanchez said. “That’s what I tried to get through to him: if you continue to stay here on this plan, all that other stuff will fall into place.”
Along with his four-seam fastball, Greene throws a change-up that’s considered his go-to secondary offering, a slider and a curveball that has come “such a long way.”
“Conner’s got a chance to be a really, really good one,” Gibbons added. “His time will come, but he’s made some pretty swift progress.”
After a productive off-season, Greene’s looking ahead at the 2017 season with some lofty goals in mind. He will start in the minor-leagues, quite possibly at double-A, but he believes the big-leagues are within reach at some point this year.
“Yes, I do,” he said. “Whatever their plan is, I’m fine with, but I feel like I’m getting to a point where I’m ready to help this team potentially get to that World Series.”