2014 truly looked like the breakthrough for Justin O’Conner. One of the Tampa Bay Rays’ two supplemental first round picks in 2010, O’Conner had never managed an OPS higher than his .652 mark in 2013 and it looked like he never would. His defense was incredible, with people saying that he had the best arm and quickest release that they had ever seen, but he had never found himself at the plate. That finally changed last season.
O’Conner finished the year with a .276/.316/.466 line with 35 doubles, 12 homers, and 47 RBI in 424 plate appearances between High-A and Double-A. His approach at the plate continued to be aggressive as he struck out 98 times while drawing just 16 walks, but he was making more contact, hitting the ball with more authority, and at least marginally improving his pitch recognition. Though he was never going to be a player who drew a lot of walks, a future as a starting catcher who would hit for a low average but contribute 15 to 20 home runs looked like a real possibility.
Then 2015 began and O’Conner went back to being lost. He now has a just a .178/.216/.297 line in 125 plate appearances for Double-A Montgomery, drilling 4 home runs to rank third on the team, but striking out 45 times against just 5 walks. He struck out 20 times against 1 walk during his time at Double-A in 2014, so it is not as though his complete lack of plate discipline is coming out of nowhere. Were evaluators being too optimistic when they ranked O’Conner among the Rays’ best prospects?
One reason to be patient with O’Conner is the way that he started 2014 at High-A Charlotte. He hit to just a .230/.271/.380 line with 33 strikeouts against 5 walks in 107 plate appearances to begin the season. He has certainly struggled to a greater extent this year, but the stories are more similar when we take into account the difference between High-A and Double-A. O’Conner then hit to a .294/.331/.495 line for the remainder of the season, and even if his OPS is 80 or 100 points lower than his .826 mark in that stretch in his rebound this year, he could still be fine.
At the end of the day, even if O’Conner turns around entirely right now, the reality is that he will never be a consistent offensive threat. He has the power and the bat speed to tantalize us, but if his patience and pitch recognition is still this poor in his sixth professional season, we can’t expect them to improve too much from here. Luckily for O’Conner, his excellent work behind the plate will always take the pressure off his bat.
Justin O’Conner’s defense is good enough that he will not need to hit much to factor into the Tampa Bay Rays’ future. This is a franchise that was happy with Jose Molina for two years and only made a change when his hitting dropped off entirely. If O’Conner’s future is more “Molina with better power” than “Matt Wieters with better pitch-framing,” that certainly isn’t a worst-case scenario. He would give the Rays a younger, more athletic catcher, and people could dream of a breakout at the plate down the line like Molina’s younger brother, Yadier Molina.
However, people looking for that catcher who changes everything for the Rays will likely be disappointed with Justin O’Conner. Unless he is about to take yet another step forward at the plate, his future is more in line with Jose Molina and Rene Rivera than something drastically better. In three years, a realistic scenario is O’Conner hitting just enough to start given his defense and being a valuable defensive catcher who Rays fans still complain about. Though there is a chance that he can top that, there may be an equal probability that he even that low offensive bar is too much for him to meet.
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