The Rays may look back at the 2014 season as the one when Justin O'Conner started to really "get it." The young catcher, taken at the end of the first round of the 2010 Draft, had a banner season in the Minors, reaching Double-A for the first time.
"I feel like I'm improving, just being able to control a pitching staff, knowing what they like to do on a daily basis," O'Conner said prior to his Peoria Javelinas taking the field in the Arizona Fall League. "Being able to be healthy and stay on the field, getting in the rhythm of playing, getting to know my pitchers, doing everything I can to make them better, it's pretty important."
O'Conner's skills behind the plate will be very important for the Rays once he reaches the big league level. He has tremendous arm strength and threw out 55 percent of would-be basestealers in 2014. Catching in the AFL will give him the opportunity to work with different pitchers and catch a higher level of competition.
"It's a great opportunity to get better and be around a lot of high-caliber players, match up against some good talent," O'Conner said. "You have guys that seem to have a plan of what they like to do; they know themselves a little bit better. Being around these guys, picking their brains and learning from them, it's going to help."
Being challenged by this level of pitching is also going to help O'Conner's offensive game. He made strides at the plate this past season, raising his OPS more than 100 points from his full-season debut in 2013 to .782. He had 49 extra-base hits, and he's starting to learn how to tap into his raw power. But that doesn't mean O'Conner will ever forget his bread and butter.
"If I can help out with the bat, great," O'Conner said, "But my main focus is being there for my pitchers and trying to do what I can, catching, to help my ballclub."
Rays hitters in the AFL
While the other parts of the James Shields trade have paid big league dividends already, don't forget about Patrick Leonard. The first baseman came to the Rays along with Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi and is coming off of a solid season in the Florida State League, improving his numbers across the board from his full-season debut in 2013. He's still learning to tap into his power consistently, but he's moving in the right direction.
The Rays took Kes Carter out of Western Kentucky University with the No. 56 pick in the 2011 Draft, and he has struggled to get his bat going. He did reach Double-A this year, albeit with a .674 OPS. The outfielder has played center and right during the regular season and has seen time in left in the AFL as the Rays try to determine if he has a future as a fourth-outfielder type and deserves a spot on the 40-man roster.
Rays pitchers in the AFL
A 15th-round 2012 Draft pick of the Phillies out of Central Michigan, Zach Cooper was released by Philadelphia in March of this year. The Rays signed him to a Minor League deal in May, and the 24-year-old reliever made 22 appearances in the Florida State League. The undersized right-hander has some command issues, but he possesses a decent fastball-slider combination that could work out of the bullpen. The AFL should be a stiff challenge for Cooper, allowing the Rays a glimpse at whether Cooper is ready for the upper levels.
Like Cooper, Matt Lollis started in a different organization, a 15th-round pick of the Padres back in 2009. The right-handed reliever was shipped to Tampa Bay in a package that sent Alex Torres and Jesse Hahn to San Diego. Listed at 6-foot-9, 250 pounds, Lollis is an imposing presence on the mound, featuring a fastball that touches the mid-90s and a slider. Lollis spent the year in Double-A where he had a 4.03 ERA over 73 2/3 innings and could be auditioning for a 40-man spot or a Rule 5 selection by another team this fall.
Sometimes senior signings late in the Draft turn out to exceed expectations. The Rays are hopeful that's the case with Colton Reavis, a 30th-round selection in 2013 out of Northwood University. Reavis pitched across two levels of Class A ball, showing some swing-and-miss stuff, along with some shaky command at times. He does have a 93-94 mph fastball to go along with a slider coming from a bit of a max effort delivery.
Another college signing from 2013, Jaime Schultz was a 14th-rounder from High Point University, a red-shirted junior who missed the 2011 season due to Tommy John surgery. Schultz also pitched at two levels of Class A ball during his first full season, though the Rays are developing him as a starter for now. Largely a reliever in college, that might be his long-term home, though he can maintain his velocity (up to mid-90s) deep into starts and has solid breaking stuff. Command is the one thing that could hold up his progress.