O'Conner Has A World Of Options
Scouts debate whether he'll pitch or hit
Coming into the summer, Justin O'Conner was a bit of a riddle.
Was the senior at Cowan High in Muncie, Ind., better as a position player—where he projected to be a solid third baseman with power potential? Or was he a better prospect as a pitcher—where he showed a 90-94 mph fastball and flashed a good curveball?
O'Conner threw a twist into the riddle toward the end of the showcase circuit when he began to work out behind the plate as a catcher. The move makes sense for the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Arkansas recruit. He wasn't likely to stay at shortstop as a pro, but he has the arm and athleticism to have a chance behind the plate, which keeps him at a coveted up-the-middle position.
Tools To Succeed
He's not moving to the position blindly. O'Conner used to catch when he was 13 and 14 years old, but the combination of pitching and catching was too much for his young arm, so he moved to shortstop.
"I think if you talk to 30 scouts, shoot, all 30 of them may say they like him somewhere different," a National League area scout said. "I personally think he can stay in the infield and I also think he can catch. He's definitely raw back there, but that's not something you can just jump into and be polished. He's a good enough athlete and he's got great makeup. I think he's going to have a chance to be able to catch with an extremely strong arm. This is a guy that threw 96 (mph) across the diamond. He's one of those kids you could mold into just about whatever you want."
O'Conner had one of the busiest summers of any prospect on the showcase circuit. He started off in Minneapolis in June at the Perfect Game National Showcase, where he won the event's metal-bat home run derby. From there, he went to Tournament of Stars in Cary, N.C., then to the East Coast Professional Showcase in Lakeland, Fla., and the Area Code Games in Long Beach. O'Conner got the opportunity to play at Petco Park as an Aflac All-American and then finished in October with the World Wood Bat Championship in Jupiter, Fla.
And, of course, all of those national events were in addition to playing with his summer league team, the Indiana Bulls—a program that has produced major leaguers and prospects such as Reds third baseman Scott Rolen, Blue Jays outfielder Adam Lind and Nationals righthander Drew Storen.
"It kind of wore on me a little bit towards the end of it, but it was a lot of fun," O'Conner said. "I think I was home probably seven days in the summer, all together. But it was a lot of fun being gone. I like playing, so it was fun."
Jupiter was the first national event where O'Conner was going to show what he could do behind the plate, but he sprained his ankle in his team's second game and was sidelined for the remainder of the weekend.
With the ankle healed, O'Conner has been doing drills three to four times a week to work on his hands, blocking and footwork. He said he won't be catching exclusively for Cowan this spring—as they have an incumbent backstop—but estimated he'd get behind the plate for seven or eight of the team's games.
"It's going really well," O'Conner said. "I've had a lot of guys that really know what they're talking about help me out and give me tips and work with me."
He had a phenomenal junior season, hitting .521 with eight doubles and 19 home runs over 96 at-bats. On the mound, he went 7-0, 0.30 with 101 strikeouts and 13 walks over 47 innings.
While O'Conner has a great arm and is a talented pitcher, his bat is advanced enough that he's considered a stronger prospect as a position player. This draft is robust in pitching prospects but thinner in hitters. Plus, conventional wisdom is that it's easier to transition back to the mound as a fallback option than it is to go back to hitting after not doing it for a couple years.
"As far as a high school kid, he's got some special pop off the bat," the scout said. "It makes that sound that's kind of a little different than the average cat. He's got the bat speed, he's got the raw juice, he has the ability to drive the ball the other way which, for a high school kid, is pretty impressive. So, I think at this point it's refining the pitch recognition and seeing a little bit better stuff, but he's definitely projectable at the plate as well. He's got quick, strong wrists."
One Step At A Time
O'Conner is currently listed at 6-foot-1, 190 pounds. He'll probably need to fill out a little if he's going to remain at catcher full-time, but he isn't hitting the gym too hard just yet, because he wants to keep his options open.
"Right now I'm not just because I don't know for sure that's what I'm going to do," O'Conner said. "I'm on a weight program four days a week, but not trying to get too bulked up because I want to keep my flexibility and all that stuff."
Between adjusting to a new position, likely being pitched around more frequently and trying to manage the hype and scrutiny of being one of the best players in the country, things probably won't come as easily for O'Conner this spring, but he's taking it all in stride.
"I'm just trying to have a good season," he said. "I haven't really thought about numbers or anything like that. I just want to have fun and win."