O'Brien may go higher than expected in Draft
University of Miami catcher battling injuries, but bat is appealing
The Florida Gators' Mike Zunino, considered the top catcher in this year's First-Year Player Draft class, is expected to be selected among the first few picks on June 4.
But figuring out where the University of Miami's Peter O'Brien will get picked is not nearly as easy.
O'Brien, born July 15, 1990, was drafted in the third round last year by the Colorado Rockies but turned down their offer. Most projections for this year rank him as high as a second-rounder or as low as a fifth-rounder. But a team that loves what he provides on offense may even go higher than the second.
He'll find out whether that happens soon enough, as the Draft takes place on June 4-6, beginning with the first round and Compensation Round A on Monday, June 4, at 7 p.m. ET. The first night of the event will be broadcast live on MLB Network and streamed live on MLB.com. Rounds 2-40 will be streamed live on MLB.com on June 5-6.
MLB.com's coverage, sponsored by CenturyLink, will include Draft Central, the Top 100 Draft Prospects list and Draft Tracker, a live interactive application that includes a searchable database of Draft-eligible players. You can also keep up to date by following @MLBDraft on Twitter. And get into the Draft conversation by tagging your tweets with #mlbdraft.
O'Brien may be the best hitting catcher in the country -- and that includes Zunino.
O'Brien is hitting .354 with a .465 on-base percentage, .677 slugging, 10 homers and 38 RBIs in 36 games. Those numbers compare favorably to Zunino's .322 average, .384 on-base, .654 slugging, 15 homers and 34 RBIs in 57 games.
"I think I proved I can succeed against good competition," said O'Brien, a senior who played his first three seasons at Bethune-Cookman before switching over to the ACC's Hurricanes.
Two scouts, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, agreed that O'Brien's bat is first rate. But there are questions, they say, about his defense and, to a lesser extent, his health.
For starters, O'Brien has been limited to just 28 games behind the plate this season -- he started eight times at designated hitter -- due mostly to injuries. He entered this week's ACC Tournament having missed 17 consecutive games due to a small hairline fracture just above his left wrist that he suffered when he was hit by a pitch against Virginia Tech.
"It is a tough injury to handle because it doesn't look like much, but your hands are everything as a hitter and as a catcher," O'Brien said. "I'm trying to get that rotation back in my swing."
O'Brien said he was thrilled recently when he was cleared to bunt.
"That's how much I love baseball," O'Brien said. "It's not just the games. I miss practice, too."
O'Brien said his coaches have been understanding and have not tried to rush him back in the lineup.
If that's so, then Canes coaches have shown excellent restraint, because O'Brien is easily Miami's best hitter and has been badly missed by an otherwise anemic offense. O'Brien still has twice as many home runs as the next-best Canes hitter, and his replacement at catcher is hitting .167.
O'Brien, though, still cannot comfortably roll over his left wrist on his swing.
"I'm getting three or four treatments a day," he said. "I'm using heat to loosen it up, and I'm icing it after practice and before bed.
"I just have to know how much I'm able to push it. I have to know my limits when something doesn't feel right."
Despite O'Brien's angst, scouts say the injury is, at most, a minor concern.
"That's not an injury that should affect him long term," one scout said. "If you draft O'Brien, you are buying his bat. And even before this season, we knew what he could do against top competition because of what he produced for Team USA.
"The real question is on defense. His arm is fine, but he is stiff behind the plate. Blocking balls and receiving are the areas where he needs to improve."
The other scout described O'Brien's actions behind the plate as "rough," "slow" and "not natural."
Down the road, O'Brien could be switched to first base. But if that happens, he would lose some value. The fear is that he would go from being a rare power bat at catcher to just a good bat at first.
While statistics tell only part of the story, it is interesting to note that Zunino has only three passed balls in 53 games behind the plate for Florida. O'Brien has seven in 28 games.
O'Brien, who is only four classes away from earning his degree in economics, is smart enough to know that the doubters exist.
"Defense has always been the question with me because I'm a big guy," said O'Brien, a 6-foot-5, 225-pound right-handed hitter. "But I plan to continue to work on it until I prove myself."
Walter Villa is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.