Last season, the Rays took two highly touted high school position players in the first round of the draft, selecting power-hitting outfielder Josh Sale 17th overall and catcher Justin O’Conner 31st.
Sale is just 20 and O’Conner is still 19, but neither pick has done much to impress in pro ball in the year-plus since their selections.
Sale signed too late to play in 2010, so he debuted in the hitter-friendly Appalachian League this season shortly before his 20th birthday. Many considered him the top high school power threat in the 2010 draft, so he was expected to take the league by storm. Instead, he’s struggled to a .210/.289/.346 line.
While he’s shown surprising aptitude in controlling the strike zone (41/23 K/BB in 60 G), Sale hasn’t translated his impressive raw power into games, with just 18 extra-base hits and four home runs. His batting average in general indicates that he hasn’t been pounding the ball.
Without much in the way of defensive value, Sale is obviously going to have to pick it up. Poor first-season numbers in short-season ball are nothing to write someone off for (see Brentz, Bryce), but there’s no question that Sale has fallen well short of expectations.
O’Conner is more troubling. Being a strong-armed catcher, he obviously doesn’t need to produce as much offensively as the rather statuesque outfielder Sale, but O’Conner has been even worse at the plate, hitting .157/.234/.354. Unlike Sale, his power has shown up (9 homers, .197 ISO), but he just can’t make contact with any consistency (78 K in 48 G). Furthermore, while he’s a few months younger than Sale, O’Conner also entered the season with 48 games of Rookie ball in 2010 under his belt, so he can’t use the “adapting to pro ball for the first time” excuse. And those 48 games last year produced a similarly weak .211/.301/.348 batting line, so they do nothing to make up for the 2011 disaster.
Again, it’s too early to dismiss either prospect, but performance this poor has to raise some eyebrows, particularly at such a low-level and offense-friendly environment. While the Rays have certainly done a great job building up their farm system in recent years, it looks quite possible that neither Sale nor O’Conner will be able to become a significant contributor to the big league ballclub. It’s too early to make a defintive call, but thus far, things couldn’t have gone much worse.