TORONTO – Between hobnobbing with big-leaguers and competing against the type of young pros they aspire to soon become, the Canadian junior national team’s annual spring training trip offers plenty for players to get excited about.
Facing the Toronto Blue Jays on Sunday is a highlight, for sure, as are the 11 games against extended spring teams from the Philadelphia Phillies, Baltimore Orioles, Atlanta Braves, Detroit Tigers, Pittsburgh Pirates, New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays.
Yet amid the memorable experiences lies opportunity, something that’s not lost on Demi Orimoloye, the gifted 18-year-old centre-fielder from Orleans, Ont., whose stock is quickly rising for the 2015 draft.
“Now I’m in the home-stretch to the draft so my mindset is that it’s a business trip,” he says during an interview. “I’m going down there all business, ready to go, show what I can do, have some fun at the same time.”
Taking such an approach is clearly working for Orimoloye, who is up to No. 39 on Baseball America’s list of top 50 draft prospects. The University of Oregon commit is also the top Canuck on the Canadian Baseball Network’s 2015 rankings, ahead of junior squad teammates Josh Naylor of Mississauga, Ont., the slugging first baseman who sits second, and Mike Soroka, the tall right-hander from Calgary who sits fourth. Arizona State lefty Ryan Kellogg of Whitby, Ont., is third on that list.
Blessed with an athletic and agile six-foot-four frame that’s already carrying 225 pounds, Orimoloye is an intriguing combination of size, strength and speed, the type of package scouts love to “dream on.” A physical comparison he gets regularly is to Justin Upton “because I have long legs and my torso is short,” but the player he models himself after is Adam Jones.
“My game is pictured around speed and power, those combination guys, I see myself being like that, too,” says Orimoloye. “I take pride in playing defence, so I like Adam Jones a lot because he takes pride in that.”
Working closely with Greg Hamilton, Baseball Canada’s director of national teams, and Adam Stern, who coached with the junior squad last year, Orimoloye has made significant gains in that regard, not to mention most other areas of his game as his raw tools have started to get some polish.
Born in Nigeria, he moved to Canada with his parents at 18 months but only started playing baseball at age nine. Orimoloye’s mother suggested he register when she saw a flier at a local community centre, he said no, but changed his mind once he discovered his best friend, Justin Silverwood, had signed up.
Initially, he “struggled with not swinging at every pitch, I’d swing at balls over my head and try to tomahawk it,” but by his second season he started to grasp the game and quickly became a natural.
“I hit my first home run when I was 10 and that’s when I realized I love hitting home runs, I love baseball,” says Orimoloye. “When I was growing up, I used to want to be Vladimir Guerrero and people used to call me Vlad because I didn’t wear batting gloves and I used to swing at everything.
“Over the years, I’ve seen what I’m hopeful to become.”
A major step forward came at last summer’s Area Code Games, a draft eligible showcase event that pits North America’s top high schoolers against each other in a series of games. Orimoloye led all batters with a .571 average and eight hits including a home run, tied for the lead in RBI with five and tied for second in stolen bases with four.
Given the stage, the performance made people notice how he was learning to leverage his gifts.
“What I’ve worked on is hitting it the other way, letting the ball get deep, knowing how to work counts better, knowing when to steal bases and improving my swing every year. It’s gotten more calm now,” says Orimoloye. “I used to be a little tense up there, grip the bat too tight, and now it’s nice and easy, relaxed and put bat to ball.
“Two-strike counts don’t bother me anymore. I’m just trying to become an overall good hitter using the whole field.”
Over the winter he spent three weeks at Stern’s complex in London, Ont., to keep the process going, working out daily from 9 a.m.-9 p.m. with Stern, Jamie Romak and Jeff Francis.
The goal now for Orimoloye is to continue applying all that work on the field, and he’s aiming high, comparing himself to other top prep outfielders in this year’s draft class. He’s become friends with Nick Plummer and Daz Cameron, ranked No. 11 and 14 on Baseball America’s top 50 list, and the trio has “a group chat and we talk about who’s going to go first between us.”
“I’m a pretty easy-going guy, so right now I’m enjoying the whole [lead up to the draft], taking it all in,” says Orimoloye. “Every now and then it will pop into my mind, but when I’m up there at-bat I’m just focusing on the pitcher, when I’m on defence I’m focusing on what’s going on at the plate.
“Maybe when I’m in the hotel, watching a movie, maybe I’ll think about it a little bit, but not while the games are going on.”
That’s when Orimoloye has business to take care of, with eyes at starring on a grander stage.