Stand inside the batter’s box of George Brett Field, the main practice field at Royals spring training, and you can see a collection of trees sitting beyond the right-center field wall. The trees are surrounded by gravel, maybe 50 feet behind the chain-link fence, and beyond the fence is a side road, named for Kansas City legend Buck O’Neil. This, Alex Gordon says, is where the first baseball landed.
Well, OK, let’s be clear here: This is sort of a guess. Gordon cannot be sure where this particular baseball landed, he says, but it was somewhere out there, amid the desert gravel and shrubs, out where the baseball just bounced and disappeared from view.
In more than a decade with the Royals, Gordon had seen only a handful of baseballs land there — and almost all were launched by left-handed hitters. But then he showed up to Royals camp in mid February and began hearing stories of Peter O’Brien, the 6-foot-4, 235-pound slugger acquired in an offseason trade from the Arizona Diamondbacks.
So on a morning two weeks ago, Gordon ventured out to George Brett Field, found a spot in the outfield and watched O’Brien enter the batting cage during an unofficial batting-practice session. In a few moments, the show began.
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“O’Brien has the most pop I've ever seen,” Gordon said. “I told the coaches, ‘I’m not in his BP, because he makes me feel like a high school kid.’ ”
So here is your introduction to O’Brien, the 26-year-old former second-round pick, the catcher turned outfielder turned possible DH, the most intriguing newcomer, perhaps, during the opening weeks of spring training.
In a clubhouse full of All-Stars and veterans, he remains somewhat of a long shot to make the 25-man roster. He lacks a natural defensive position. He has batted just .176 in 37 major-league games. In December, he was designated for assignment by the Diamondbacks before being sent to the Royals in exchange for a little-known minor-league pitcher named Sam Lewis. But there is the power — yes, that power — the tool that makes professional baseball players look on in awe, the gift that turns every batting practice session into a display of majestic blasts and ridiculous clout.
“It’s pretty amazing to see,” Eric Hosmer said.
“The best I’ve ever seen,” Gordon said.
“It’s to all fields and it’s effortless,” Whit Merrifield said. “It’s different.”
It is, of course, the power that attracted the Royals to O’Brien in the offseason. But it was also the long-term potential in his bat and the roster flexibility he offered. O’Brien still has two option years remaining, which means he could log an additional 1,000 at-bats at Class AAA Omaha over the next two seasons. Club officials are hopeful the extra seasoning could unlock his potential and make him a more complete hitter.
O’Brien is hoping to force their hand with his performance this spring. And so far, he has accomplished that goal, hitting three homers in the Royals’ first four Cactus League games, including a mammoth shot Tuesday that cleared a 30-foot batter’s eye wall at the Milwaukee Brewers’ Maryvale Baseball Park.
“Freaky power to all fields,” Royals manager Ned Yost said.
For the moment, O’Brien remains confident in his ability and his future. But the final step to the big leagues has proven to be the most difficult. A native of Miami Gardens, Fla., O’Brien starred at catcher for the University of Miami before drafted by the New York Yankees in the second round in 2012. Two years later, he was shipped to Arizona in a July trade that sent Martin Prado to New York. The Diamondbacks viewed him as a possible answer behind the plate. But defensive questions forced him to the outfield, and O’Brien never found a home in Arizona.
“I think the biggest thing is just: ‘Keep things simple and focus on the process,’ ” O’Brien said. “I have all the tools I need to play up here. I just need to make the game as simple as possible and let everything take care of itself.”
To this point, the numbers suggest a work in progress. In 2016, he balanced a .295 on-base percentage and 24 homers with 147 strikeouts in 105 games at Class AAA Reno. In 28 games with the Diamondbacks, he batted .141 while spending most of his time in left field. The Royals hope to see O’Brien cut down on his strikeouts and make more contact. But at the least, the defensive questions are less pressing. Now he is back in the American League, where the luxury of the designated hitter remains. For O’Brien, it could offer a path to the big leagues.
The Royals are expected to slot left-handed hitting Brandon Moss at the designated hitter spot, but O’Brien could provide a right-handed power bat off the bench.
“He fits into our club in a number of ways,” Yost said. “He’s still developing as a hitter. And the advantage that we have is we still have two (minor-league) options, which is 1,000 at-bats of development left.”
In the early days of camp, the power is hard to miss. But if O’Brien possesses a second premium tool besides the ability to obliterate fastballs, it stems from his childhood in south Florida. The son of a mother from Cuba and a father from Michigan, O’Brien grew up speaking both Spanish and English. His mother Mercedes — a former professional ballerina who left Cuba in 1981 — made sure her son mastered Spanish first. Inside a baseball clubhouse, the skill can help O’Brien maneuver between cultures — even if new Latin teammates are occasionally caught off guard.
“Somebody will say something in Spanish, and then I’ll answer back,” O’Brien said. “And everyone kind of freaks out — the last name O’Brien and my first language was Spanish.”
As camp presses on, O’Brien is still acclimating himself to a new clubhouse and and a new organization. But after three homers in four games, the early returns have been promising — to say nothing of the legendary BP sessions. So in the opening weeks of camp, after witnessing the power up close, Yost sat in his office and told another story from earlier this offseason. After the Royals acquired O’Brien from Arizona, hitting coach Dale Sveum found himself talking to former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, who helped run the Diamondbacks front office during O’Brien’s days in Arizona.
In all his decades in baseball, La Russa told Sveum, he had only been around two players this caliber of power: Mark McGwire and Peter O’Brien. It was an audacious pronouncement, of course. But after watching a few weeks of batting practice, it didn’t seem so crazy.
“It’s prodigious raw power,” Yost said. “I can’t compare it to anybody.”