Name: Clayton Conner
Draft: 45th Round, 2006
Position: Third Base
Weight: 210 lbs
History: Clayton Conner was the last player ever signed by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the Draft-and-Follow process, which is why few fans had heard of him before his breakout 2007 campaign. For those unfamiliar with the now-extinct rule, Clayton himself helps explain:
"I got drafted out of high school by the Nationals, but I didn't go with them," he begins. "The Diamondbacks drafted me after my freshman year out of Junior College, but said they wanted me to go one more year there. So I put up some stellar numbers there my sophomore year and decided to [sign with the Diamondbacks]. I don't think I was overlooked at all."
Basically, before the draft pick signing deadline was moved up to August last year, an organization could retain its rights to a player drafted out of a Junior College even as he continued to play for that college in the following season. So Connor was motivated to produce his "stellar numbers" during his 2007 JuCo season, because he had not yet finalized a deal with the Diamondbacks. But why didn't he just sign as the Nationals' 31st pick out of high school in 2005 rather than wait to drop to the 45th round with the D-backs in '06?
"I didn't feel like I was ready out of high school," Connor replies simply. "Some just have got the talent where they are ready [at that point], but I didn't feel like I was. That's a decision that kids just have to make themselves."
Both Connor and the Diamondbacks had to be happy with his decision after he continued his 2007 success at Yakima. He led the Bears in homers and RBI, and would have easily led in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging had he enough at-bats to qualify. He initially struggled upon his promotion to South Bend that August, but collected some big hits in their postseason, including a home run.
Statistics Courtesy of The Baseball Cube
The 2008 season would not prove as fruitful. Two weeks into the season, he was slumping so badly and suffering from so many aches and pains that Silver Hawks manager Mark Haley moved him from third base to full-time designated hitter, where he could concentrate solely on his hitting. He would play his final game of the season on May 9th, landing on the disabled list frustrated.
"He just wore down," Haley tells us. "There were multiple things. At first it's a sore leg, then you change your arm action, and [get] a sore shoulder. He pushed himself pretty hard; he's a pretty intense kid."
Batting and Power: I watched Conner take batting practice in April, with "take" being the operative word. He wasn't swinging, merely watching the balls go by as he stood there at the plate. I asked him what the purpose of that exercise was.
It wound up being more than just bad luck, and certainly more of a concern than Conner led on. In fact, as good as his numbers at Yakima were, he still fanned four times as often as he walked, suggesting a poor conceptualization of the strike zone. His tendency to connect with the ball in front of home plate also makes him susceptible to offspeed pitches. That is a big part of the reason why he could not easily adjust to the more advanced pitchers of the Midwest League.
What Conner does have going for him is tremendous power. He's been compared to Mark Reynolds in that regard, but Conner may actually have greater bat speed.
"He's a young, strong-looking hitter," Haley judged. "He'll hit the fastball when he knows it's coming. It's just a matter of balance issues. He's definitely got the bat speed. He's got great hand speed. He doesn't have any idea what he's doing with it yet."
"I'm young," the recently-turned 22-year old said in April. "I just need to find a way to stay consistent."
Base Running and Speed: Connor has an athletic build that allows him to move around the base paths with reasonable alacrity. Given how his body wore down this year, the organization isn't going to allow him to use his decent speed to steal bases, though they will never fault him for taking an extra base here and there. When his swing is off, Conner tends to pepper sharp grounders to the left side of the infield, which makes him a considerable threat to ground into a twin killing.
"Last year, at the beginning of Short-Season, I kind of struggled with defense a little bit," Conner admitted. "But they worked with me, and it helped out a lot. My hands are getting softer, quicker feet, and [I'm] just staying confident."
Conner will still make errors at this stage of his career, but he also made several outstanding plays in his short five weeks of action this season. He also showcases a strong arm, which is a tool that mostly remains in the shed whenever he mans the first base position.
"I feel comfortable at first base, too," downplayed Conner. "I played there a lot in Junior College. I feel comfortable in the corners. It doesn't really matter which one I play."
"He actually settled in defensively, and that's where they thought he would struggle," mused Haley.
Major League Clone: Casey Blake
Prediction: Conner is a couple of adjustments away from being able to hit the ball consistently. When he does, the ball will launch off his bat. The fact that he might be able to hold his own at the hot corner defensively is a bonus, because he should hit well enough to play first base in the major leagues. 2008 was a setback, but perhaps a necessary one in the sometimes too-confident young man.
"He'll be back and be as strong as ever," Haley predicted.
ETA: One of Conner's goals for the 2008 campaign was to reach Visalia by season's end. Now, it appears likely that he will play at South Bend for the third straight season, at least to start 2009. Conner still has much to learn on both sides of the ball, and shouldn't be expected to contribute at the major league level before 2012.
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