Peter O’Brien was on the move for the second time in his career this past week, traded from the Arizona Diamondbacks to the Kansas City Royals for right-hander Sam Lewis. Can the switch to the American League finally get O’Brien his extended stay in the major leagues?
O’Brien has seemingly always had three big problems following him on his climb to The Show. His aggressive approach at the plate makes it appear that he hates to walk, he plays pretty poor defense at several different positions, and there has always been better talent above him, making it a struggle to fit in.
Selected in the second round of the 2012 MLB Draft out of Miami, O’Brien climbed the Yankees ladder behind an impressive power swing. For O’Brien it was all power. He had a long-swing that made for a lot of home runs, but he also had little plate discipline. He had a pretty powerful arm behind the plate, but he really struggled with his receiving skills and accuracy in throwing out runners.
But man, when he connected, it was a thing of beauty.
O’Brien wasted little time making his presence felt in professional baseball, raking ten home runs in 198 at bats in his New York-Penn League debut. The following season he would hit 22 more, adding 39 doubles to the back of his baseball card. Split between Charleston and Tampa, he was still a catcher in the Yankees system deep in catching prospects. Remember, this was 2013. Gary Sanchez was the clear cut heir apparent to Jorge Posada with names like John Ryan Murphy (J.R. back then) and Austin Romine close to filling the gap until El Gary was ready. O’Brien needed to show something to break the Yankees roster in an overcrowded catching position.
2014 was just that. O’Brien exploded on Double-A pitching. In just 72 games at Trenton, O’Brien skyrocketed up the Yankees prospect charts with 23 home runs. He also struck out 26.2 percent of the time, which, let’s face it, in today’s game isn’t that bad for a young power hitter learning the ranks. When it was paired with a 5.4 walk rate for a heart-of-the-lineup guy, then it becomes more worrisome. Still, with his trade value at an all-time high, the Yanks shipped him to the desert in the Martin Prado deal.
Almost immediately, the Diamondbacks moved O’Brien’s big bat to the outfield. He continued to excel in the PCL — a league made for a guy like O’Brien — with Reno, slashing .284/.332/.551 with 35 doubles and 26 home runs. He earned a late season audition, and played very well with the big league club in a very small sample size, going 4-for-10 with a home run in his debut.
Nothing was different in 2016. A lot of home runs at Reno, a nice amount of doubles, a lot of strikeouts, and very little walks. With Paul Goldschmidt entrenched at first, and with three starting outfielders — when healthy — better than O’Brien both in the field and at the plate, O’Brien once again became expendable. With the beginnings of a new regime in the front office in Arizona, and a poor showing in the majors (he hit five home runs in 64 MLB at bats in 2016, but struck out 27 times while walking thrice), O’Brien’s value wasn’t as high.
The Diamondbacks received Lewis, who had a nice 2016 split across three levels, going 3-1 with a 2.17 ERA and a 0.80 WHIP with a 33-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 37.1 innings. Lewis, now 25, reached his highest level of pro ball last season, a five-game debut at High-A. He still seemingly has some work to do. O’Brien, however, doesn’t have anything left to prove in the minors.
We know who O’Brien is. Here was John’s summation from The Baseball Prospect Book 2016 heading into the year:
No mysteries with Peter O’Brien’s bat: he can mash. Make a mistake and this guy will hit it to Saskatchewan. However, the danger is containable if you coax him into chasing something outside the strike zone, which he is wont to do, or if you can get up and inside where his long swing can’t get around well. Still, any location mistake and you’ll pay. This is 20+ homer power in 500 big league at-bats, but he might have trouble hitting .240 and he’ll strike out a lot. If O’Brien could catch he’d be a fine regular but his defense behind the plate has never really panned out. He tries hard and he has a good arm, but he struggles with receiving and making accurate throws. He spent most of last year in the outfield with weak results but has been adequate in brief trials at first base. It seems something of a waste to leave power of this quality trapped in Triple-A but without much better defense it is hard to see where he fits, at least for a National League team.
2016 was more of the same.
But this season, O’Brien has his best opportunity to put his big bat to good use. The Royals outfield is set, as even with the recent departure of Jarrod Dyson, Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain and Jorge Soler are not going to go anywhere. His primary competitor at the DH spot will be Cheslor Cuthbert who shares a similar profile (shaky defense and shakier strike zone awareness) with O’Brien minus the power. The one thing the Royals are always looking for is power.
This should be O’Brien’s best chance to date. He no longer has to worry about finding a spot in the field, as he could possibly relieve Soler for a rest day, but won’t be expected to be a regular. Salvador Perez is not only good, but very reliable for a position that is often banged up and missing time, so O’Brien won’t have to worry about any time behind the plate.
No, all O’Brien has to worry about now, for the first time in his career, is raking. And that’s what he has proven that he has done best.