Nick Piecoro reported yesterday that Peter O'Brien, whom it seemed at one point was the favorite to win the job as starting catcher this season, played his second consecutive game at minor-league camp in the outfield and "hasn't been behind the plate since throwing problems developed earlier this month." The throwing problems which broke out this spring apparently also followed him after his reassignment. Now, that's only a week or two, but minor-league director Mike Bell said, "I think he's going to play some outfield (once the minor league season starts) and catching isn't out of the question, but we're still talking internally to figure out what's best for him."
That's quite some fall from grace for O'Brien. Barely two months ago Piecoro wrote that the prospect "could be the answer" to our vacancy at catcher, describing him as the main reason why Dave Stewart had stopped looking for outside help at the position. Though even this piece noted that many evaluators outside the team "don't see O'Brien ever being a capable defender behind the plate." Earlier in March, just before the Cactus League began, CBO Tony La Russa told Arizona Sports, "Here we are now getting ready to play the Rockies and Peter is going to be catching and hitting fifth [to open Spring Training]."
At the time of his reassignment, the club publicly said that it was his offense, and not his throwing woes, which were responsible for the decision. Chip Hale said, "We just felt it's time for him to go get more at-bats and get ready for the season. Big guys with longer limbs need to get their swings right. You don't want to start them off slow." While it's certainly the case that he hadn't set the world on fire offensively this spring, hitting .250/.323/.250 for a .573 OPS, it has to be believed that his throwing issues played into that. Even simple tasks like returning the ball to the pitcher, or going round the horn after a strikeout had led to gaffes, though O'Brien appeared unworried:
"I played a lot of different positions last year and had a lot of different arm angles. Now being back behind the plate full time, it's making sure I keep my arm slot consistent back there and keep throwing it and keep the tempo of the game up. It happens. It's part of the game. I'm looking to keep working on it and keep getting better and keep firing the ball."
It is certainly too early to bang a stake through the heart of O'Brien ever playing behind the plate. He is still only 24, and there is time for him to fix what may be as much a psychological issue, as much as a physical one. But in the event that isn't the case, what is Arizona to do? The outfield doesn't seem like an ideal spot for someone with throwing issues, and at the spot on the diamond which has fewest and shortest throws to make, the team already has an All-Star level incumbent. If he continue to hammer 30-40 home-runs a season, that will play, but perhaps the best hope is the new CBA, which will come in for 2017, expands the DH to the National League.
However, a potentially larger issue is the overall one of talent evaluation. As Fangraphs noted earlier in the week, the Diamondbacks "don’t just march to the beat of their own drum; they’re not even sure drums qualify as a musical instrument." If the current situation holds true, it appears the conventional wisdom about O'Brien was right, the Diamondbacks' position being ruthlessly exposed as flawed after only a few weeks of spring training. Between that and the questionable decision to put Yasmany Tomas at the hot corner, I can't say it inspires a great deal of confidence in the team's decision making process with regard to young talent.