By Danny Gallagher
Canadian Baseball Network
JUPITER, Fla. -- In a small, enclosed pen adjacent to Field 7 in the backfields two home runs away from the main diamond at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium, two minor-league coaches are feeding balls into a machine directed at home plate.
It's a catchers-only session and one of them is highly prized slugger J.D. Osborne of Lindsay, Ont., who is attending his first Spring Training with the Miami Marlins, who drafted the Toronto Mets' alumnus and Canadian Junior National Team member out of the University of Tampa last June.
Ozzy, as he is known to many, is listed on the Marlins minor-league roster sheet handed out to the media as C/Util, meaning he can play other positions. He started out as a shortstop years ago, but when you are growing up, you tend to grasp knowledge elsewhere on the diamond. He has spent time at third base and first base along with stints at short and catcher.
Osborne, like any player drafted by a major league team, wants to make it to the majors but he has no timetable. This season, the Canadian prospect, wearing No. 62 here in Spring Training, is earmarked for either one of two single-A squads: New York's Batavia Muckdogs or North Carolina's Greensboro Grasshoppers. He'd prefer to start as a Grasshopper and by the end of the season, he'd love to be in High-A as a Jupiter Hammerhead.
Batavia is the Marlins' short-season affiliate, while Greensboro is low-A.
"I'd like to be in Greensboro,'' Osborne said. "I'll find out about April 1 where I'm going to be playing. It's everyone's dream to make it to the majors. I have no timeline. I can play other positions but they have me at catcher now. I'm trying to learn stuff every day, like getting down in the crouch.''
Osborne, 22, opened up the eyes of Marlins' scout Donovan O'Dowd, who recommended to his superiors that the team draft the catcher after his eye-popping year at Tampa. In a mere 222 at-bats in 43 games, this is what Osborne fashioned: batting average of .387, 20 homers and 86 RBI. A torrid pace. 86 RBI in 43 games? You saw that right.
Osborne was a terrific transfer from Polk State in Winter Haven, Fla., located about an hour from Tampa and was voted a first-team all-American in the NCAA Division II ranks. Pretty heady season for the kid, who grew up mainly in Whitby, the son of Clare and Maria Osborne.
After being drafted by the Marlins, Osborne was dispatched to the organization's Gulf Coast rookie-league team for a short-season stint, responding with a .226 BA and 10 RBIs in 84 at-bats. Maybe not the kind of statistics he was hoping for but he has lots of time to iron out the kinks of playing in the minor pro ranks as opposed to university ball.
"With the GBL team, that first summer for amateur players coming from college ball is tough,'' said O'Dowd, in trying to explain Osborne's dip in offence. "The pitching is really good in rookie ball. There are a lot of players to see in minor pro ball so they have to spread out the at-bats. That way, J.D. was playing every other day after playing every day for Tampa. It was hard for him to get into the rhythm. Plus, guys are tired after a long season of college ball.
"The way the system works, you have to build yourself up at each level. You start at short-season, then play a full season in Greensboro and by the end of the season, you might be in Jupiter.''
But there's no doubt O'Dowd likes what he sees in Osborne now and what he saw of him at Polk State and Tampa.
"I have a pretty good track record with J.D.,'' O'Dowd said. "I liked his personality, his makeup, his work ethic and obviously his skill-set. He has tremendous power.''
Osborne comes from some pretty good pedigree. He's a chip off the old block, meaning father Clare, a travelling mortgage specialist and a former right-hander, who pitched in a number of Ontario adult leagues and was my teammate with the Sudbury Shamrocks of the Nickel Region Senior Baseball League in 1977.
"My dad has been raising my baseball IQ ever since I was a little kid,'' Osborne said. "He's been raising awareness when it comes to my at-bats and on the flip side when I was pitching, he'd give me advice on how to get hitters out.''
There have been baseball figures like his father, who Osborne has idolized over the years and made an imprint on his quest to make himself better as a player but there is one who stands out more than anyone.
"The person who has most impacted me was Brett Lawrie,'' Osborne said of the former Blue Jay. "He had a lot of spirit and fire. A good old Canadian boy. He was my inspiration. He had a lot of inspiration and a lot of passion.''
And how does O'Dowd see Osborne down the road performing in the majors? It all depends on his hitting. Most baseball players are reasonably solid defensively but it they can't hit worth a lick, they might have a problem sticking in the majors.
"No doubt,'' O'Dowd said. "It depends on his bat. If he produces, we'll find a spot for him. He has to find a position, whether it's catcher, first base, third base, short.''
The potential is there for Osborne to do wonders in his pro career. He's that talented. Good luck, Ozzy.