Roberto Osuna Doesn't Want to Be a Starting Pitcher
Osuna made it clear that he wants his long-term home to be in the bullpen. He also talked about the battle for the closer's job, El Chapo and Donald Trump.
Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Roberto Osuna is a smart young man. In four years stateside, his English has improved in concert with his pitching. Flashpoint, the Toronto-based cop show, is a favoured tutor.
"I love it, so I watch it every night," he says. "I kind of listen to something and I just go and Google and see what that means, so I'm learning from it."
So when Osuna speaks, his syntax tends to candour and clarity. And on Tuesday, he was eminently clear about his personal vision of his baseball future. He does not want to be a starter, as the Blue Jays keep suggesting he should be. He wants to be a closer, and he wants management to hear that, loud and clear.
"A closer, of course," he says when asked about his preference. "I like to be in those situations. I'm not saying it's easy to close games, but it's easy to be out there and you got on your mind that you've only got the ninth. So you can have the time to prepare yourself for the ninth inning. You're watching the game. You kind of know what you've got to do when you get in the game."
Last year, when he was 20, Osuna learned under fire what he had to do. He logged 20 saves, a 2.58 ERA and a WHIP of 0.919. He struck out 75 in 69.2 innings. His fastball averaged 95.5, his slider 88. He threw more innings last year than he had in his first three as a pro. He also got tired at the end and his command occasionally suffered as a result.
So he has given this closer versus starter debate a lot of thought, and he can see a personal flashpoint coming. After turning pro with visions of starting, which is where the big money is, circumstances (and Tommy John surgery) brought him to the bullpen as a big-league rookie, and he loved the thrill and thrived on the pressure.
"I like to be a reliever because I like to pitch very often," he said during an interview with three reporters in an empty clubhouse after the Jays took their A team to play the Tigers in Lakeland, Florida. "I would get bored if I pitch every few days. I think I'm the guy who wants to be out there every day and help the team in the most ways that I can."
And he worries about how a transition to the rotation would work, and how it might affect his surgically repaired elbow. Would the Jays do what the Nationals did with Stephen Strasburg and shut him down after he reached an innings limit? Would they build him up by putting him in Buffalo and taking it slowly? Would they keep him in the bigs but keep his outings short and skip occasional starts?
Putting him in the 2017 rotation and turning him loose would be "a big risk," he says.
"Obviously we'd have to make a plan for me," he says. "I don't think I'd be able to pitch 200 innings... If they want me to be a starter they will have to understand that. You know, take it easy a bit. Obviously I want to be a reliever this year.
"But that's my plan for next year, be a starter."
The word my in that last sentence might have been a rare slip of Osuna's tongue. I ask whether he says he expects to become a starter because that's his plan, or because he believes that's what the Jays want him to do.
"You're right," he replies, "it's because they want me as a starter. But if I would have the choice, I would stay in the bullpen, especially next year when we won't have probably [Drew] Storen or [Brett] Cecil, so I probably have the chance to be the closer. I would take the closer over starter."
Storen and Cecil will become free agents in November. If Aaron Sanchez gets his wish, he will have left the bullpen for the rotation. That would leave Osuna as the last man standing at the back end, which is precisely where he wants to be.
All of which points to the muddle the Jays face—beyond the obvious situations around Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion—going into 2017.
Meanwhile, Osuna says he learned a lot from his rookie season, which included a tip from bullpen coach Dane Johnson that helped him recover the command of his slider. (A smaller flick of the wrist, more pressure on one finger and less on another. One finger bled sometimes around the nail as a result, but the pitch started to work again.)
When he went home to Sinaloa, Mexico, in the offseason, he naturally attracted a lot of attention from the townsfolk, but not entirely for the reasons you might expect. Many were more interested in his teammates than young Roberto, whom they'd known for years.
"Because I play with Bautista, [Josh] Donaldson, [Troy] Tulowitzki, all those guys, everyone would ask me about those guys, like 'How's Bautista, how's Encarnaion?' And the job we did last year was unbelievable, so everybody was so happy.
"It was just a little bit about me. We had [David] Price last year, and they were asking me, 'Hey, how's Price? He seems like he's a nice guy.'"
Osuna says he worked diligently to strengthen his shoulder in the offseason and to continue his baseball scholarship in other ways.
"I tried to get in shape a little bit better than what I did last year," he says. "And I learned a lot of things about hitters. I watched a lot of video from last year, and obviously tried to find out the things that I did wrong, and obviously tried to fix it for this year. It's not just about my body, it's about the game, too."
His offseason also put his neighbourhood in the world spotlight, owing to the exploits of two prominent men: drug lord El Chapo and U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump.
When El Chapo was captured, Osuna was at home, 3 1/2 blocks away.
"I started hearing the shooting around 4 AM, 4:30," he says. "But I didn't know it was El Chapo, right? And it's very normal in Mexico." The shooting, he meant.
Trump, of course, wants to erect a wall between Mexico and the United States, and that too fills many a conversation in Osuna's native land. He says he tries to ignore that narrative.
"If I pay attention to those things, I would look worse than him," he says.
I ask whether his countrymen are angry with Trump, or whether they laugh at him.
"They laugh about it because it's silly to think that they're going to put up that wall," Osuna says. "And we don't care. If you've got the visa, you can cross to the United States and you can do whatever you want. Everyone knows that we Mexicans work so hard and we don't come here to do whatever we want to. We are so scared about the police and other stuff. In Mexico we can do whatever we want to but not here.
"I've been in the United States for the last few years and I'm still feeling a little bit afraid to do some things, like I'm driving and I don't want to go over the speed limit because I don't know if I'm going to get in trouble or not [with police who stereotype]. We don't come to the United States to do what [Trump] says."
After stating unequivocally that he wants to be a career reliever, Osuna turns silver-tongued diplomat when asked about the so-called competition between him and Storen for the closer's job this year. It doesn't matter whether he closes or sets up, Osuna insists with a benign smile.
Of course, he desperately wants to keep the job, but on this occasion he dishes the team-first pablum. He says he was not surprised the Jays traded for Storen and will not be surprised if the newcomer gets the job he wants.
"I mean, I understand that I'm 21 years old, no experience, they want to feel probably safe with somebody else pitching the ninth. So I understand," he says.
So you're saying Storen will pitch the ninth?
"I don't know. Probably. He's got the experience and he's what they are looking for. But, I mean, we'll see."
Roberto, come on, I say. Deep down, you want that job, right?
"Obviously," he says. "Yeah, I want it. But I can't control it. I'm just doing my job. We'll see what happens."