DUNEDIN, FLA. – Blue Jays reliever Roberto Osuna spent the off season resting his elbow and shoulder, working on pitches, spending time with his family and, oh yeah, listening to one of the biggest police busts in history go down.
In the early hours of Jan. 8 in the coastal city of Los Mochis, units from the Mexican Navy’s Special Forces raided a house where Sinaloa Cartel drug lord Joaquin Guzman, aka El Chapo, was hiding. Guzman actually got away through a secret tunnel during the raid but was captured soon after by the Federal Police.
“I was 3 1/2 blocks away,” said Osuna on Tuesday, following a workout at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium. “I started hearing the shooting around 4 a.m., 4:30, but I didn’t know it was El Chapo. I mean (gunfire) is pretty normal in Mexico.”
Osuna said there had been rumours in Los Mochis that El Chapo, on the lam after breaking out of a federal prison for a second time last July, was in town hiding.
“But then we looked at the news three hours (after the gunfire) and it was El Chapo,” added Osuna, who lives in Los Mochis with his dad, mom, twin brothers and sister.
Despite the violence associated with the Mexican cartels, El Chapo has sort of a Robin Hood reputation with many people in his home state of Sinaloa, and Osuna, son of a ex-Mexican League pitcher, understands why that is and is not afraid to say so.
“He sends (poor people) some food, money, he takes care of the sick people, he had some hospital (built) for the people, so I respect (that),” said Osuna, making the point that if people in the developed world didn’t buy cocaine and other illegal drugs from poor countries, there wouldn’t be drug lords in places like Mexico.
Perhaps because he’s so young (turned 21 on Feb. 7), Osuna is refreshingly candid. After a morning workout, he chatted on a number of issues, baseball-related and otherwise; including prospective wall builder and Mexico basher Donald Trump, how he still feels uncomfortable sometimes being in the U.S. and how he would prefer to remain a relief pitcher in the future, despite some talk to the contrary.
About Trump, Osuna said what the Republican Presidential candidate says about building a wall at the border to keep Mexicans out of the U.S. doesn’t really bother him, though he does take issue with any suggestion that many Mexicans are lazy or up to no good when they get to the U.S.
“They (Mexicans) laugh about it,” said Osuna, who quit school at 12 so he could pick vegetables to help support his family. “It’s silly to think he’s going to put up that wall. And we don’t care. If you get the Visa, you will cross to United States and you will do whatever you want to. We as Mexicans work so hard, and we don’t come here to do (anything illegal). We are so scared about the police and all this stuff. I’ve been in the United States for the last few years and I’m still feeling a little bit afraid to do something, you know what I mean? 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. So obviously we don’t come to the United States to do what he says (cause trouble).”
Though he may not be totally comfortable driving around the streets of Dunedin, Osuna certainly looked comfortable last year in his first year in the majors. He made the Jays as a non-roster invitee at spring training and then established himself as the club’s closer and one of the most exciting young arms in the organization. The hard-throwing right-hander finished the season with 20 saves and an ERA of 2.58 and was fourth in the AL Rookie of the Year balloting. Osuna said he learned a lot about himself as a person and pitcher last year.
“I learned a lot of things about the game, (how) to control myself and know what to do in (certain) situations … and obviously I feel better for this year,” he said.
Osuna was a cool customer on the mound last year, even though he was a 20-year-old rookie closing for a contending team.
“It’s easy when you’ve got guys like Russell Martin and Dioner (Navarro, now with the White Sox). It’s easy to go out there and do your job because they’ve been there before,” he said. “The only thing I had to do was follow them.”
Osuna laughed when asked if his impressive rookie season made him a big hero back in his hometown. He said he has become pretty famous, but joked that it’s not him everyone wants to talk about at home. They want to talk about his teammates.
“Because I play with (Jose) Bautista, (Josh) Donaldson, (Troy) Tulowitzki, all those guys. So everyone was asking me about those guys. ‘How’s Bautista? How’s (Edwin) Encarnacion?’” he said, laughing. “Oh yeah. Absolutely (about my teammates). It was just a little bit about me. We had (David) Price last year and they were asking, ‘Hey, how’s Price? It seems like he’s a nice guy.’”
Despite his year, the Jays traded for veteran reliever Drew Storen in the off-season, and now there’s a competition between the two over who will get the closer job this season. For his part, Osuna said he is not upset in the least about Storen’s presence.
“I get paid to play baseball, so it doesn’t matter about the role. Like I said before, I just got to go out there and do my best. Gibby’s (manager John Gibbons) going to make the decision and we’ll see what happens,” said Osuna, who was actually not surprised the club picked up a closer with Storen’s experience.
“I understand that,” he said. “I’m 21 years old, not experienced. They want to feel probably safe with somebody else pitching the ninth. So I understand. Obviously, yeah, I want it. But I can’t control it. I’m just doing my job. We’ll see what happens.
“If I’m the closer or not, I will go out there and do my best,” he continued. “No matter. I don’t care if I get the 9, 8, 7, 6 (inning) … I just want to help the team win, that’s it. So if they’re going to find a better way for me to help them, then I’ll take it.”
There has been talk that the Jays eventually plan to turn Osuna into a starter, with a number of veteran pitchers on the team probably leaving after this season. But Osuna, who once said he wanted to be in the rotation, now would prefer to remain in the bullpen the rest of his career.
“I like to be a reliever because I like to pitch very often,” he said. “I will get bored if I pitch every few days. I’m the guy who wants to be out there every day and help the team the most ways that I can.”
There’s always a risk trying to turn a young reliever into a starter.
“Obviously they have to make a plan for me (but) I don’t think I’d be able to pitch 200 innings or plus. If they want me to be a starter, then they’ll have to understand that. They got to take it easy a little bit,” Osuna said. “That’s going to be a big risk if they just let me go as far as I can … but like I said, they will make the decision. I will do whatever they want. They want me as a starter, but if I had the choice, I will stay in the bullpen. Especially next year, we probably won’t have Storen or (Brett) Cecil, so I’d probably have the chance to be the closer. I would take the closer over starter.”
It was suggested to Osuna that perhaps by next season he’ll have enough clout that he’ll be the one making the final decision.
“Maybe. Yeah,” he said, with a smile.
Osuna said he also spent the off-season watching videos of hitters and of his pitch action, looking for ways to improve or maintain his arsenal of pitches, particularly his slider, a pitch he had some trouble with late in the season. At one point in the 2015 playoffs, the nail on the middle finger of his right-hand was giving him problems and started to bleed, hampering him from throwing his slider. But it’s something he and bullpen coach Dane Johnson now have a handle on.
“I think everything is there,” he said. “I’ve been feeling very good here in spring training. I’ve been throwing the slider and change ups and it looks good.”
Osuna getting English lessons from TV
Roberto Osuna’s English has improved by leaps and bounds from last season, but it’s not because he took any lessons.
The Blue Jays reliever said the improvement is a result of watching English-speaking TV, and one show in particular.
“I’m watching a series from Toronto, Flashpoint, that’s about the police and all this stuff. I love it,” he said. “So I watch it every night so I can listen to something and then I go on Google and see what it means.”
Most of the actors in the Toronto-based series, which is now out of production, were Canadians, so perhaps Osuna will be speaking English in the future with a Canuck-Mexican accent.