Demi Orimoloye is an unusual baseball prospect in many ways, but let’s start with what potentially could make him the most unique baseball prospect of all-time. Born in Nigeria, the 18-year old outfielder who now calls Orleans, Ont., his home, has a chance to become the first major league player ever born in Africa. Indeed, Africa and Antarctica (population: zero) are the only two continents that have not had a big leaguer born on their soil.
“I didn’t even know that until recently,” the soft-spoken Orimoloye says. “I think that will make my parents very proud if it happens, even though we moved to Canada when I was three.”
What else makes Orimoloye stand out? You could begin with his 6'4", 225-pound frame, which isn't often found on legit baseball prospects north of the border. “He looks like a kid who’d normally be going to the University of Texas to play tight end,” says Greg Hamilton, Canada’s head coach and director of national baseball teams.
There's also the bat-speed, foot speed combination. At the Area Code Games last summer in Los Angeles, the premier annual showcase event for young baseball talent in North America, Orimoloye turned around a 94 mph fastball and hit about a 400-foot home run to left-centerfield in his first at bat, then beat out a routine groundball to shortstop his second at bat. “It was like watching Bo Jackson again,” said an American League scout. “A rare athlete on a baseball field.”
But, the scout—who requested anonymity since Orimoloye, who has committed to the University of Oregon, is draft eligible this spring—says those attributes are not what make Demi unique.
“There’s real baseball in him,” said the scout. “By that, I mean, he recognizes pitches very well. You’ll see him check on good breaking balls. You’ll see him make adjustments in game. If there’s a weakness in his game right now, it’s his defense. The routes he takes on flyballs need work and his arm is not great but it is developing. But I expect to him to improve. There are a lot of super athletes who come along, but a lot of times, they’re just so raw. Not Demi.”
Credit Canada’s national baseball program, led by Hamilton, a former Princeton hockey player, for the way it identifies and develops the country’s best talent. There are three projected first-round picks—lefthanded hitting first baseman Josh Naylor and righthanded pitcher Mike Soroka, to go along with Orimoloye—on the team’s current roster. Most of the players have been a part of the Canadian program for at least three years. The Canadians make four trips a year to warm climates to take on professional competition.
“Demi started with us as a 15-year old,” says Hamilton. “He came in as a pure athlete, very crude as a baseball player, but we didn’t ease him into things. We put him into our junior national team, which plays against major league instructional league teams in the U.S. and the Dominican. On the front end, the game sped up and overwhelmed him. He had to deal with a lot of failure.”
That harsh baptism, and the Canadian program’s patience, is the reason why Orimoloye was one of the few hitters who wasn’t fazed by the power arms at the Area Code Games. “That tournament is typically a showcase for pitching,” said the scout. “Kids who are going to big college programs, or high in the draft, all trying to light up the [radar] gun. What we saw from Demi was a kid who, clearly, was not in awe of the velocity. You could see the confidence, the swagger.”
Orimoloye was voted the Most Valuable Player of the Area Code Games, going 9-for-14 with seven RBIs and six stolen bases in the tourney. But his star has risen even higher on Canada’s spring tour, where March 17, he hit a long home run against a Yankee minor league pitcher who was throwing in the 90s, and nearly took Blue Jays knuckleballer R.A. Dickey deep on March 16. Whenever Canada plays, the scouts are showing up in droves to get a glimpse of Orimoloye.
“Playing the pro teams, facing pro pitching for so many years, has given me an advantage, I think, even though I come from Canada,” says Orimoloye. “We come here on two-week trips, play a pro team every day, use a wood bat. That’s a lot different than facing high school pitchers with a metal bat. It’s a lot more difficult, but I think it’s helped me improve my game faster.”
All that’s left now is to see where Orimoloye will be selected in the draft. No one expects him to drop to the second round, and while he says he hasn't ruled out going to college, the chance he ever plays for Oregon will get slimmer with every impressive performance this spring.
“He’d be a high pick just on the way he runs and fills out his uniform,” says the scout. “But what we’re starting to see now is he’s also become a baseball player. There’s not another like him.”