O'Conner Making Best of His Situation

It's been a tumultuous couple of years for 2010 first-round pick Justin O'Conner who has dealt with injuries, high expectations and struggles at the plate. Now limited to being a DH due to a hip injury, his future as a catcher is on hold until he undergoes off-season surgery, but O'Conner is making the best of his situation and is beginning to show signs of his enormous potential as a hitter.

Justin O'Conner misses playing the field.

"Definitely," he answered with a nostalgic smile. "It gets monotonous."

But right now, O'Conner's job description has nothing to do with playing the field. The 20-year- old has had 62 at-bats in the 2012 season for the Hudson Valley Renegades, and all 62 of them have been as a designated hitter.

O'Conner, selected 31st overall in the 2010 MLB Draft as a catcher by the Tampa Bay Rays, has a bone spur at the socket where his leg and hip bones meet. Squatting causes the bone to rip away at the cartilage, which makes being a catcher, the position O'Conner played at for 36 games in 2011 for the Princeton Rays, not viable.

For now, O'Conner knows that being a designated hitter in Hudson Valley is the only way he is going to get playing time and experience.

"I feel like I'm 100 percent to be able to be a DH," O'Conner said. "I love hitting, and that's the only way I can help the team at this point and I'm trying my best to do that."

Renegades' hitting coach Dan Dement has been impressed with O'Conner's acceptance of his new role.

"He's handled himself just being in the DH role," DeMent said. "He's used to catching or in high school playing shortstop, so he's used to playing a position every day. This is something different for him, and I think he's handling it pretty good so far."

O'Conner has emerged as the team's best offensive player so far this season, but his journey even to this point in the minors has not been easy. After being drafted in 2010, the first-round pick from Muncie, Indiana batted .211 in 48 games with the Gulf Coast League Rays. He then spent 2011 with the Rookie League Princeton Rays, where he faced many new challenges at the plate.

The right-handed hitter who was drafted for his offensive abilities and power, finished the year with a .157 average, striking out 78 times while only getting 18 hits in 178 at-bats. He did finish strong, going 7-for-24 with three homeruns and eight RBI in the team's final 10 games.

"Last year was definitely a struggle," O'Conner said. "This is the first time I had really faced this kind of adversity, that kind of a struggle. I let how I started, which was poorly, get in my head. It carried over and I just couldn't find a way to get out of that. Finally, towards the end of the season, I just kind of relaxed and stopped letting things get to me, and just started playing better."

Using the final 10 games of last season as a springboard, O'Conner has evolved into one of the Hudson Valley Renegades' strongest hitters in 2012.

The designated hitter has played in 15 of the team's 17 games and leads the squad in batting average, hits, doubles, slugging percentage, OPS and total bases. He is hitting .323/.338/.548 with 11 doubles and has hit one homer.

According to both O'Conner and DeMent, the improvement has been just as much a mental one as a physical one.

"This year, really, it's the mental side of the game," O'Conner said. "I still get frustrated when I get out, but I'm trying to just get over my at-bats and really think about one at-bat at a time. It's really helping me play better."

DeMent is working with O'Conner in both aspects, and the results have been reflective of why the Rays used a first-round pick on the him, the earliest the Rays had ever drafted a catcher.

"He's starting to get a better concept of how to work, having a plan when he comes to do his work in the cage and hitting batting practice," DeMent said. "He's making some adjustments mechanically, but most of all he's maturing as a baseball player and as a hitter. Mentally, the adjustments that he's making are where he's making his biggest strides so far."

There are still improvements to be made, as O'Conner has struck out 18 times compared to only two walks, but the offensive numbers are proof enough that he has figured something out at the plate. He plans on getting surgery on his hip in the off-season so he can play in the field again. But until then, he has a job to do in Hudson Valley — and he's going to make the best of it.

"(We're working on) taking every day one day at a time, one pitch at a time, one at-bat at a time and not looking too far ahead in the future," DeMent said. Having short term goals, small goals for him to achieve and to concentrate on those little things right now. I think if he does that and conquers some of those small goals of having a good approach and just letting his overall natural athleticism and his natural talent take over and not try to do too much, and I think he's going to be a real good hitter in the future."



Eric Vander Voort is the Hudson Valley beat writer for Rays Digest You can follow him on Twitter at @ecvandervoort.

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