There’s considerable buzz in the local Kansas City media about Royals prospect Peter O’Brien. As the Kansas City Star reports, he’s impressed the Royals braintrust with his enormous power, as well as his teammates, including Alex Gordon:
Originally drafted from the University of Miami Hurricanes in the second round by the Yankees in 2012, O’Brien was traded to the Diamondbacks in 2014 then on to the Royals in a trade this past January. He has 74 major league at-bats to his credit, all with Arizona, hitting .176/.228/.446 with five walks and 32 strikeouts. For Triple-A Reno last season he hit .254/.295/.505 with 24 homers, 23 walks, and 147 strikeouts in 406 at-bats.
O’Brien has been on the radar for years and his profile hasn’t changed: he is enormously strong and a very dangerous power hitter. However, his hitting attack to this point has been one-dimensional: he hits homers, but his strikeout rates are persistently very high and his walk rates persistently low, hampering his on-base abilities. He’s knocked six homers in his two major league trials but has fanned more than 40% of the time and hasn’t drawn enough walks to compensate for that. There’s little in his minor league record to indicate that will change.
Originally a catcher, he has been primarily a corner outfielder and first baseman at the highest levels. He’s not terrible as a defensive first baseman but his lack of speed and range shows up in the outfield.
If you want a reason for optimism, look at his birthday: O’Brien is 26, just entering the peak performance age 26-28 window experienced by many players. That brings an interesting parallel to mind, courtesy of noted Royals fan Rany Jazayerli:
I know this sounds crazy, but let's get crazy: Peter O'Brien could be the one to finally Break Balboni. https://t.co/ltTCsqLvLD— Rany Jazayerli (@jazayerli) March 1, 2017
Steve “Bye Bye” Balboni was 27 when he found his way into the Royals lineup in 1984, then set the Royals single-season home run mark with 36 in 1985. Like O’Brien, Balboni was a minor league slugger with questionable defense. O’Brien certainly has similar raw power, though it should be noted that Balboni, while very prone to strikeouts, showed a greater feel for the strike zone and more patience in the minor leagues than O’Brien has to this point in his career.
On the other hand, O’Brien is a better overall athlete and has more defensive versatility than Balboni did. As the Star notes, O’Brien still has two options left, enabling the Royals to send him back to Triple-A for more work on his contact issues.