Prospect Owen Caissie’s rise on hold as makeshift workouts replace games

Canadian prospect Owen Caissie. (Baseball Canada)

TORONTO – On the afternoon of March 12, Owen Caissie settled into the left-handed batter’s box at TD Ballpark and prepared to face Connor Overton. Though neither player knew as much at the time, the entire baseball world was on the brink of shutdown. But word of the upcoming stoppage hadn’t reached the dugouts in Dunedin, Fla., so the at bat between Caissie and Overton proceeded as though it were any other day. Both players had something to prove.

Caissie, a 17-year-old outfield prospect on Canada’s Junior National Team, was looking to boost his draft stock in a rare game against pro players. Overton, a 26-year-old right-hander with five years of minor-league experience, was looking to make an impression on his new organization, the Toronto Blue Jays.

This time, the younger player came out ahead. The left-handed hitting Caissie turned on a pitch from Overton and sent it over the centre-field wall into the batter’s eye. He rounded the bases on a high, unaware of the news now making its way around the ballpark and excited for further chances to test himself against older, more experienced players.

“I was feeling it,” he recalled. “At that point everything was coming together.”

It didn’t take long for all of that to change. Soon after the game ended, Caissie and his teammates learned that MLB had suspended spring training due to the spread of COVID-19. Before long, the Junior National Team would cancel upcoming trips to Arizona and Florida. Baseball, at virtually all levels, came to an abrupt and indefinite halt.

While those precautions are necessary at a time that the coronavirus continues hospitalizing and killing thousands worldwide, they leave draft-eligible players like Caissie facing an uncertain future. Under normal circumstances, scouts would be scattering across North America in preparation for the draft, scheduled for June 10-12. But most draft-eligible players can no longer play in games or practice. Even if they could, scouts wouldn’t be there to see it happen.

Clearly, there are far bigger issues than baseball here, and Caissie readily acknowledges as much. But it was still gutting to have his season stop just as he was playing some of his best baseball yet.

“We’re missing out on so much,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking for the whole baseball community because we don’t get to do what we love.”

Ranked 95th on Perfect Game’s list of top 2020 draft prospects, the U of Michigan commit has a chance to go within the first few rounds of the draft – assuming it even takes place. A six-foot-four outfielder who will turn 18 on July 8, Caissie is one of the top eligible prospects in the country (along with outfielder David Calabrese) and was recently identified by Baseball America as a player whose draft stock could jump this spring.

“Big raw power, a handsy left-handed swing, solid straight-line running ability and a chance to stick in centre field,” BA’s scouting report read. “Caissie will get a chance to face professional pitching this spring in Florida and if he performs well could jump significantly.”

For now, at least, Caissie won’t get that chance. With games suspended and most gyms closed, the Fieldhouse Pirates product has had to get creative with his workouts. Basics like push-ups and air squats are in heavy rotation, and he has even started hauling 75-pound sandbags across a nearby field.

“It’s not really ideal,” he said. “Just carry them as far as you can. It works, but still.”

At one point after returning home to Brampton, Ont., he went outside to take some swings. But soon afterwards the cold weather had taken its toll. His hands were demolished.

Nevertheless, hitting is a passion for Caissie, who describes himself as a student of the game. When asked to compare himself to a major-league hitter, he doesn’t restrict himself to the obvious: tall, left-handed hitting outfielders like himself. Instead, he highlights Aaron Judge’s spine angle and the rotational power of Jose Altuve and Mike Trout. He points to Carlos Correa’s front arm, the simplicity of Charlie Blackmon’s swing and Barry Bonds’s quickness and strength.

“Elite players do elite things,” Caissie said. “I want to … not emulate them, but try to do stuff that works for my body and my biomechanics for myself and how I’m engineered. Obviously I’m not going to be the same player as Carlos Correa, but I’d try to emulate those same patterns because, if I get those patterns down, I’ll be OK and in the right spot for hitting.”

At 17 years old and with limited experience against pro-calibre arms, he still has plenty of work ahead of him. More mistakes await Caissie, and he knows it.

“The game is so humbling,” he said. “I’m always trying to learn from my mistakes. Because I will make mistakes, but I’m trying to limit them right now.”

Eventually, if games can be played safely, Caissie will get the chance to resume what he describes as the most important year of his life. If that home run into the batter’s eye is any indication, there’s intriguing ability here. He wants the chance to keep testing himself and impressing scouts.

But at this point, all eligible prospects can only wonder when the draft will take place and what the lead-up to the annual event will look like. Instead of games and practices, Caissie’s left with sandbags, air squats and uncertainty.

“It is hard to think about. I thought about it the other night and I did get kind of heartbroken by it since baseball’s my life,” he said. “But I can’t really complain. It’s just part of my journey to where I want to go.”

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