Brunt: Where baseball goes to dream

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The Arizona Fall League is a chance for prospects to turn heads—and for Blue Jays fans to imagine a brighter future.

Here, at this time of year, baseball hope springs eternal, though it’s not just wishful thinking. The Arizona Fall League is designed to offer one last post-season tweak for those looking to refine skills or switch positions. It features many of the sport’s best young prospects, and among its alumni are some of the game’s brightest stars.

They play in the beautiful new Cactus League stadiums in and around Phoenix, in front of tiny crowds populated by scouts, dedicated seam-heads and autograph hunters hoping to secure signatures from the next big thing before they become The Next Big Thing.

If you like baseball, and sunshine, really where would you rather be?

And if you are a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays, you know that it was here last fall that Drew Hutchison convinced the club he was ready to claim a place in the big-league rotation, that Marcus Stroman turned heads, that Aaron Sanchez suggested he might be on the verge of a great leap forward.

Understanding that prospect porn is what it is—especially for those who follow teams that haven’t made the post-season in a couple of decades—there are intriguing Blue Jays stories here again this year.

One is Dalton Pompey, the homegrown centre-fielder who Jays manger John Gibbons says would be first in line for the job if spring training were beginning today.

The other is 19-year-old Roberto Osuna.

His tale so far: A prodigy from the Mexican state of Sinaloa, he signed his first professional contract with Los Diablos Rojos del Mexico as a short, stocky 15-year-old, and at 16 was pitching against men in the Mexican League, roughly the same level as triple-A. The Jays gave him a $1.5-million bonus to sign as a free agent, and he immediately became one of the guys people in the organization swooned over. “If you asked me a year and a half ago to pick between him and Aaron Sanchez, I would have picked Osuna,” says Mike Mordecai, who is managing Osuna’s and Pompey’s fall league team, the Mesa Solar Sox.

Then, the injury. While pitching for the A-ball Lansing Lugnuts in late April 2013, Osuna felt something in his elbow give.“When I threw that pitch I felt a pop, so I knew it was hurt but I didn’t want it to be,” he says. “I was so nervous. When they told me I was going to need Tommy John surgery, I was crying. It was so hard.”

(Osuna’s English vocabulary when he first arrived at Jays camp consisted of a single word: “OK.” He is close to fluent now.)

After a futile attempt to rehab the injury without surgery, he went under the knife in June 2013, and made a tentative return to the mound this past summer, with mixed results.

It’s the stint here that will go a long way toward influencing where Osuna might begin 2015. After that, as with the young pitchers who made huge strides last season—Sanchez, Stroman, Daniel Norris—it’s up to him.

The early returns in the AFL weren’t good, as Osuna struggled to locate his fastball. He’s still growing (he’s six-foot-two now), and he’s dropped weight, so he is also adjusting to a different body.

“You throw and you are afraid to feel the same thing,” he says of his early AFL outings, when he experienced what turned out to be normal discomfort in his surgically repaired elbow. “The first couple of times you can’t throw like before because you’ve got [the injury] in your mind. I’ve got to get my confidence. I’m working on it, doing my best to get ready for spring training. But it’s hard when you get hurt and see everybody jump to the big leagues. You think, ‘I should be there.’”

In recent outings—including the AFL All-Star Game—Osuna has looked much better, with a fastball that is consistently in the mid-90s and greatly improved control.

Mordecai thinks that Osuna could follow the same fast track as his fellow Blue Jays prospects, but warns that early bloomers don’t always succeed in this game. “He’s got the personality of a 10-year-old,” Mordecai says. “It’s just fun for him now. He just likes being around baseball. He’s awfully young yet, but pitching-wise, in terms of his stuff, he could compete against big-league hitters right now with what he’s got.

“But mind-wise? I don’t know if he’s there yet. He might tell you, ‘I’ve got to work.’ But realistically he doesn’t see it as work. Once he puts more time and effort into things like scouting reports, he could be a very special pitcher for this organization for a long time to come.”

The beauty of late-fall baseball is the same as the beauty of spring training: You can imagine the best possibilities without cruel reality obstructing the view.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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