Scottsdale, Ariz. -- The Colorado Rockies are awash in prospects, boasting one of the top farm systems in baseball and giving hope to fans who have suffered through a half decade at the basement of the National League West. And yet while names like Ryan McMahon, Raimel Tapia, Brendan Rodgers, Jon Gray, and Jeff Hoffman dance in the heads of prognosticators and fans near and far, the club's farm system has nearly 200 players; not all can be prospects.
Enter: Mitchell Osnowitz.
A 24-year-old right-handed pitcher (well, I suppose he's a pitcher; more on that momentarily) from Illinois, Osnowitz signed a minor league free agent contract with the Rockies back in February after being released by the Atlanta Braves back in November at the end of two years in their farm system.
Osnowitz has some notably positive traits for a right-handed reliever: size (6'5", 245 lbs.) and power (multiple sources tell me he tops out in the mid-90s). He also has some quirks to his background that make him an interesting acquisition, to say the least. Here's one: before his professional career began 21 months ago, Mitchell Osnowitz never pitched an inning in his life.
Yes, you read that right.
After he wrapped up a successful amateur career as a third baseman at Lindsey Wilson College in Kentucky, with stops at Indiana State University and in junior college, Osnowitz—who is proud of earning his bachelor's degree while playing college ball—went to a Braves tryout camp for undrafted amateur free agents. While there, he... you know what, it's a better story if he tells it.
"You can look at my numbers, you can look at all that stuff, and you can be like, ‘man, this guy sucks,'" Osnowitz says of his time in the Braves' system. "But then if you go, ‘wait, he's never pitched before in his life, and he's been facing guys who have been hitting their whole lives,' it's a little bit different. And I've never thought of it as a woe-is-me type thing, it was always just a way to keep playing."
Baseball is weird, and tryout camps are weirder still; or, maybe, they just push players towards their fates. After taking grounders at third base and showing his skills at the plate, Osnowitz was mistaken for a two-way player, and asked to pitch. He didn't balk at the request, and hours later, his fate was sealed.
"I played third base all through college, got invited to all the workouts and all that stuff, and nothing really shook out," Osnowitz remembers. "Then I went to that Braves' workout, and it was all high school guys and myself. Afterwards they were like, ‘hey, they mentioned that you pitch?'"
"I was like, ‘oh, they did? Oh yeah, yeah, sure,'" he says. "They were like, ‘you want to throw a bullpen?' And I was like, ‘yeah, sure!'"
Not to put too fine a point on it, but that bullpen saved Mitchell Osnowitz's baseball career.
"I threw there on a Thursday, and they were like ‘yeah, we'll get you a follow up, maybe get something going, hopefully another bullpen,'" he remembers. "And then that Saturday they were like, ‘yeah, we're going to sign you as a pitcher.' So I go to the Gulf Coast League, I threw one bullpen, threw one live [batting practice] session and then I started throwing in games."
Your question right now surely must be the same as that which I pose to Osnowitz incredulously: so, wait, you threw three times off a mound before making your professional debut?!
"Yeah, three or four, give or take," he says.
Naturally, there's been a learning curve for the pitcher, who has appeared in just 36 career minor league games over two seasons, logging a 5.72 ERA, 9.8 H/9, 5.2 BB/9, and 8.8 K/9 across rookie levels in the Gulf Coast and Appalachian leagues and the Low-A South Atlantic League.
"I've been taking my lumps like guys usually probably do their freshman year of college, that's all me right now," he admits of his last two years in the Braves' system. "Learning to be a pitcher while I've been thrown into the fire, at this point, would I really want it any other way? This is the best way for me to learn. Sucking at something is the first step to being good at something."
Now that's wisdom.
"Everybody is the new guy, the newbie at one point, and my time is just right now," he adds. "But I'm not too worried about that stuff. I'm just going to keep showing up and proving to them, like, hey, I'm as advertised, this is me, and you've got something great to work with."
That's the thing, too; as inexperienced as Osnowitz is on the mound, he doesn't come to the role without plus arm strength on which to build. A power fastball and a hard breaking ball fit his profile as a relief pitcher, which is what attracted the Rockies to him in the first place, according to Chris Forbes, Colorado's player development manager.
"Marc Gustafson [the Rockies' senior director of scouting operations] saw Osnowitz and recognized this is a very physical kid with a good arm, who is really at the tip of the iceberg of what he could be," Forbes says. "We don't really know yet, he didn't pitch in college. He went to an open tryout with the Braves and they just put him on the mound."
"So we did a lot of background work, looked at his character, even just to give him a shot to make a club in camp," Forbes adds, quick to note that there's no guaranteed spot for Osnowitz with a Rockies affiliate this spring; anything the young righty gets, he's going to have to earn. "That's what it is, he's just coming in here now and we can't promise him anything. We'll see what we can do if we can refine something, or create something. Our pitching coaches love those big donkeys like that, those guys that throw hard."
While Osnowitz may not call himself a "big donkey," he is a big, strong guy—towering over even me, and I'm a couple inches north of six feet. (Well, on a good day.) Being brand new to the organization, I ask Osnowitz to give me a scouting report on himself in an attempt to better get to know him.
"I'm usually in the low to mid 90s, which I think is good. It's good to have a little velocity," he says. "Besides that I have a good curveball, so I'm mainly a fastball-curveball guy, and then throughout the year we try to mix in a change up as much as we can."
That changeup is a soft spot on his profile, but having just barely crossed the threshold of 50 career innings on the mound, maybe that's to be expected.
"It's just one of those things where the change up is a lot of feel," he adds, "and you can see my career innings are only 70 or something like that, but it'll get there. I'm just a big, strong guy, more of a power guy out of the bullpen. That's how I profile myself."
Forbes doesn't profile Osnowitz much differently, though the player development executive is quick to repeat one important thing about the newcomer: this month is nothing more than a tryout. Really, Osnowitz's March in Scottsdale isn't much different than his initial open tryout with the Braves; here's a chance to fight for his career, to extend it however much further he can.
"We used to run a one-day tryout, which just isn't fair," Forbes laments about the Rockies' prior approach to minor league free agents. "It was hard for us to evaluate, and it took us out of the realm of our typical schedule. So now when you see a guy like Mitchell, let's just give them camp. Let's let them settle in with us. Let's let them get to know what we're about, we can get to know what they are about, and we can evaluate his skills over a longer period of time, versus making a quick decision."
Osnowitz knows the drill, too. He's hopeful that High-A Modesto will be his landing spot come April, but whether it's Asheville, Hartford, extended spring training, or even out on the street looking for another job in or out of baseball, all the righty really hopes for is a fair shot this month.
"When they signed me, I wanted to make sure that I would get an honest chance, and they said that they would give it to me, I would be given all of spring training to get a good look, and I appreciate that," Osnowitz says. "We'll go from there, see if I can make a team, and that's great. So now, my approach is just to show them my stuff. If at the end of the day I do well and it doesn't work out, at least I can tell myself I did well."
As far as what it's going to take for Osnowitz to make a minor league team coming out of camp, the Rockies aren't focused on stats or spring outcomes in making their decision. For Forbes, this is just another component of the club's scouting and player development arms, as the team evaluates whether Osnowitz has within him something that can be developed and brought out over the summer.
"He has to show over this month, in a perfect world, the best version of himself," Forbes says. "More importantly, that he intrigues our pitching coaches for them to say there's more in there. We can refine things in a guy who is as raw in his craft as he is, but he's got a big arm, and he seems like a phenomenal kid. And he's been working hard since he got here."
"That kind of commitment," Forbes adds, pausing to shake his head, "He came early, and Scottsdale is not cheap, as you know. But that's the best way to do it, just to take him on and see what we can create."
Eschewing the stress of trying to prolong his baseball career—again—Osnowitz only sees good things in Scottsdale this month.
"Everybody has been so friendly," he says. "The complex is nice, the staff has been excellent to me, and then Chris Forbes has been a great help, as far as showing me around, showing me the cafeteria, meeting the players. The guys that I've talked to, the pitching staff and the coaches have all said great things. I'm looking forward to the rest of spring training, getting in the working group with my hopeful, eventual teammates, and going from there."
"Purple looks good," Osnowitz adds, laughing. "So that makes me feel good."
For a man who now has three weeks to extend his professional baseball career or come up empty-handed, you'd think looking good in purple would be the last of his concerns. Then again, for a man who entered the pro ranks with no pitching experience in the first place, maybe being open-minded when thrown into the fire is the right way to go about earning a job this spring.
"I don’t worry too much about whether I’m on a prospect list or anything," Osnowitz concludes. "There’s been a lot of guys who have never been on a prospect list before who have had great Major League careers."
Whatever the case, it's going to be a career-defining month for the big donkey; here's hoping his feel-good story continues into April in the Rockies' minor league system.
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More on Mitchell Osnowitz
Osnowitz writes his own blog about his professional baseball career, and it's legitimately fascinating. Click here to read about his journey thus far through the minor leagues.
My conversation with Osnowitz was far-ranging and goes beyond just this snippet. For more from Osnowitz and his chat with us here at Purple Row, click here.