09/30/10 12:50 PM ET
Transition to catcher isn't easy for O'Conner
First-round pick by Rays has impressed instructors so far
By Bailey Stephens / MLB.com
But as professional teams started to do their homework on the athlete out of Muncie, Ind., several -- including the Rays -- saw O'Conner's future as a backstop.
Fast-forward a year and -- after being selected with the 31st overall pick in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft -- O'Conner is well on his way to making that future a reality. The 18-year-old signed quickly, passing up a scholarship to the University of Arkansas, and spent the summer in the Gulf Coast League, learning his new position. Now in the instructional league in Florida, the process is continuing for O'Conner, who is relishing the time to slow down and fine-tune his craft.
It hasn't necessarily been an easy switch for O'Conner. The Port Charlotte, Fla., heat has made sure of that, taking some weight off his 190-pound frame.
"I didn't know it was going to be this hard," O'Conner said. "It's a lot harder than I thought it was. I've lost some weight. .... Being from Indiana, I got burnt pretty bad the first weeks. I had a pretty hard time adjusting to the heat."
Aside from the heat, he had an entirely new position to learn. One that came with a whole host of nuances for the former pitcher and shortstop. But he brought one thing with him from the mound that would prove very helpful in catching: his cannon of an arm. This season, O'Conner gunned down 35 percent of baserunners, a strong number for any catcher, but an astounding one for a first-time backstop. Although GCL stats mean little, that number certainly caught the Rays' attention.
"That's real impressive, especially for a young man that hasn't not been a catcher for a long period of time," Rays farm director Mitch Lukevics said. "Justin possesses a really strong arm. He's really coordinated, so the transition of receiving to throwing the baseball is easier for him."
It's simpler than that to the mild-mannered O'Conner. He just likes to get guys out.
"Throwing out runners is probably my favorite thing about catching, just being able to impact the game," he said. "It feels good."
The Rays expect O'Conner to impact the game with his bat, too, although his hitting took a bit of a backseat to the catching introduction this year. O'Conner was scouted as a hitter with above-average power, though some thought he might not necessarily hit for a high average. His initial GCL season fit that prediction, as he hit .211, but sent 16 of his 34 hits for extra bases. Still, with all of the extenuating circumstances, the Rays aren't concerned about his hitting prospects.
"There's an acclimation period that all of these young high school kids have to go through," Lukevics said. "He shows you everything you'd want to see in a good hitter. Over time he's going to be. "
Although his GCL season showed much promise, O'Conner knows there are still many hot days in the Florida sun ahead. In fact, he hasn't even hung it up for the season, continuing his work in the instructional league for the next two weeks. And he fully intends to make the most of his time with the Rays' catching coaches.
"I'm pretty much learning the same stuff as during the season, but there's more time to work on it and do more drills," O'Conner said. "Instructs isn't about a stats thing, it's focusing on getting better on your craft. I feel like I've learned more about catching in these two weeks than I did all year."
Even when he takes off the gear, it won't be a quiet offseason for O'Conner. He'll head home for a few days of rest and then embark on an 11-day trip to the Dominican Republic. When he returns, O'Conner has some serious offseason goals to attend to before Spring Training.
"One of the main things I'm going to work on is getting more flexibility and putting on some good weight," O'Conner said. "I just want to get my reps over the offseason behind the plate and come back strong."
The Rays hope so, too, although they have no plans to rush him or his development. Of course, that's nothing out of the ordinary for their most talented youngsters.
"We really take our time with high school signings," Lukevics said. "Rapid advancement doesn't happen for the most part when you're a high school player. Let them get their feet underneath them, before we start a rapid ascent."
That's been the way with Rays' prospects in the past, who have made a slow but steady climb to the Majors. But seeing former high school draftees Jeremy Hellickson (2005) and Desmond Jennings (2006) reach the Majors this year gives O'Conner a glimpse of his future -- even if it might be three to four years away.
"It lets me know that it is possible," O'Conner said. "I have a shot at being a big leaguer. That's what I want. That's all I've ever wanted."
Bailey Stephens is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.