Rays Prospects

Tampa Bay Rays MiLB Recap: A Good Day for Justin O’Conner

By Robbie Knopf
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It was all about the pitching on Tuesday in the Tampa Bay Rays system, from Chris Archer in the big leagues all the way on down. Some credit always has to go to the catchers, however, especially when they get beyond their usual pitch calling duties to pick off runners and/or contribute at the plate. Justin O’Conner is off to a rough start to 2015, and while Tuesday marked far from his best game, it was certainly a positive day for him.

Triple-A International League: Durham Bulls 2, Charlotte Knights (CHW) 1

Dylan Floro is turning it on. After he began the season with a 4.46 ERA, more than a hit per inning, and just a 4.7 K/9 in his first 7 starts, it was worth asking whether he was good enough to keep starting at Triple-A. However, he now has a 1.69 ERA in his four starts since, and in his last two games, we have started seeing more strikeouts from him as well.

Floro went 6 innings allowing 1 run on 6 hits, striking out 7 while walking none. Floro entered May 26th with just 4 games with at least 7 strikeouts among his 78 career games (60 starts), but he has now pulled off the feat in consecutive games. On the season, he now has a 3.36 ERA, a 5.6 K/9, a 1.1 BB/9, and a 0.4 HR/9 in 11 starts and 67 innings pitched. He forces a lot of groundballs and walks nobody, but to succeed at baseball’s highest level, he needs to improve his secondary pitches to help him miss more bats. Maybe that process has already begun.

Enny Romero started his first 5 games of 2015, but he appeared in relief with the Tampa Bay Rays on May 23rd and hasn’t started since. On May 29th, he tossed 2.1 innings allowing 1 run on 4 hits, striking out 4 while hitting a batter. He upped the ante in this game, going 3 innings allowing no runs on 2 hits, striking out 4 while walking 1. Romero has always had the ability to be a dynamic late-inning arm, and it looks like the Rays are finally unleashing him now. It won’t be long before he takes his act to the major leagues for a more extended period.

The Bulls scored both of their runs in the fourth inning of this game on RBI singles by Eugenio Velez and J.P. Arencibia. Ryan Brett began the rally with a double and later scored while Richie Shaffer doubled later in the inning. Corey Brown went 1 for 2 with a walk while Shaffer, Arencibia, and Alexi Casilla all went 1 for 3. Shaffer is still hitting .333 in 8 Triple-A games as he is off to a good start since his promotion to Durham.

Double-A Southern League: Jacksonville Suns (MIA) 4, Montgomery Biscuits 1

Justin O’Conner’s game was not off to a great start, but it was decent enough. He helped Jared Mortensen to a great outing–6 shutout innings allowing 5 hits and no walks while striking out 7–and helped him out by picking a runner off first base. He was 0 for 3 in the batter’s box, but he knew that his principal responsibility was his work behind the plate rather than at it. The frustrating part about catching, however, is how much of the game can be out of your control.

O’Conner did his best working with Bradin Hagens, but Hagens allowed a hit batsman, a walk, and a 2-out, 2-run double. Then, in the following frame, Bryce Stowell allowed two line drive singles sandwiched around a groundball through the hole to score 2 more runs. Mortensen’s great game was wasted and the Biscuits were about to lose 4-0. It had to be frustrating for O’Conner, but he received one more chance to do something positive. He stepped up to the plate with 2 on and 2 outs in the ninth inning and drilled an RBI double to break the Suns’ shutout.

It was incredible all the progress that O’Conner made behind the plate. He always possessed tremendous arm strength, but his 35.1% caught stealing rate was just a little bit above-average, not enough to make up for his struggles at the plate, and he didn’t catch at all in 2012 after a hip injury. However, he has thrown out 52.8% in the three seasons since while also making drastic improvements to his receiving, pitch calling, and blocking balls in the dirt. He became impressive enough that he was on the prospect map even before his breakout 2014 at the plate.

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However, O’Conner hasn’t been able to replicate his defensive advancements at the plate to any real extent. If a prospect threw out 50% of attempted basestealers but didn’t really have a good arm or a quick release, no one would care. They would say that he just got lucky. O’Conner’s performance last season was much of the same. We still see his bat speed and raw power. We still see the ability to be not just a great offensive catcher, but a great hitter in the general. Yet his plate discipline remains flawed with no end in sight. He still has that gaping hole in his game as he hopes to establish himself as a big league catcher. All we can do is take the positives that O’Conner provides and hope that one of these hits will start a run of sustainable progress.

Mortensen, meanwhile, now has a 2.95 ERA and a 51-14 strikeout to walk ratio in 65 innings pitched. He just turned 27 years of age–he certainly isn’t young for Double-A–but he only made his affiliated ball debut in 2013 and has enough stuff that we can be optimistic. When it’s all said and done, the Rays might have themselves a solid bullpen arm and maybe more.

Next: Tampa Bay Rays Game 53: Chris Archer Strikes Out 15

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