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Justin O'Conner's arm catches Rays' attention

Published Mar. 13, 2015

PORT CHARLOTTE — Catching can be a grind during spring training.

There's early work at the machine as the sun rises, and afternoons spent in the bullpen warming up pitchers before, perhaps, getting a swing or two in a game.

"The way spring training goes, catchers kind of get the brunt of all the work," said manager Kevin Cash, a former big-league catcher. "They're constantly busy. They don't get many at-bats."

But the extra reps are crucial for Justin O'Conner, a developing 22-year-old who was regarded as a top defensive catching prospect … before he even truly converted to the position.

When O'Conner was a baseball star at Cowan (Ind.) High, he was primarily a shortstop. During his senior season, he'd line up occasionally at catcher when scouts stopped by. O'Conner said the position was awkward, but the scouts were able to see what they wanted.

"It was my arm," he said.

O'Conner strengthened his powerful right arm by doing long-toss exercises as a child. He couldn't play football — his high school was too small to field a team — so he couldn't stretch it out as a quarterback.

"I'm lucky enough that God gave me a strong arm," O'Conner said. "I've just always been able to throw hard."

Despite being new to the position and still raw, his arm was so respected that teams regarded him as the top high school catching prospect in the 2010 draft. The Rays chose him No. 31 overall — the first time they've used a first-round pick on a catcher.

Years later, his arm is still impressing major-league coaches.

"Any time he throws, everybody stops what you're doing," Cash said. "The conversation stops, and you watch him throw."

But O'Conner didn't take to the position quickly.

He had bone spurs in both legs, leading to two hip surgeries. Even though the conditions weren't caused by baseball, O'Conner said he still feared his new position would lead to injury.

"When I first came in, I didn't know anything about catching," he said. "It's all new to me. Everything felt awkward."

By 2013, O'Conner began to feel comfortable behind the plate — and it showed. He picked off 13 base runners in low-A Bowling Green, tied for most in the minors that season, and threw out a Midwest League-high 55.6 percent of would-be base stealers.

O'Conner continued to break out last season, batting a combined .278 with the Class-A Stone Crabs and Double-A Montgomery while leading all minor-league catchers with 35 doubles. Defensively, he picked off 16 more runners and threw out 33 of the 60 opponents who tried to steal on him. He still remembers one highlight-reel throw from his knees that nabbed someone heading to second.

"I always look forward to somebody trying to run," he said.

Now, O'Conner is trying to build on his back-to-back strong seasons. He had a hit in the Futures Game last summer and batted .303 in the Arizona fall league, where scouts and players named him the league's top infield arm.

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MLB.com calls O'Conner the No. 61 overall prospect in the game, and he's adjusting to big-league camp. He had his first hit of the spring, Wednesday against the Twins in Fort Myers, and those long sessions in the bullpen are showing him how to catch pitchers he might eventually join at Tropicana Field.

"That's the main thing, just getting to know everybody, catching different pitchers," O'Conner said.

"I've learned what our guys have, what kind of pitches they throw, what certain guys like to do in certain situations — which is nice for the future."

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com.