Move to first base could help Peter O'Brien realize his awesome power potential

Yankees prospect Peter O'Brien warms up in Trenton

Yankees prospect Peter O'Brien warms up in Trenton on Tuesday, June 10, 2014. Photo Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy

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TRENTON, N.J. -- About midway through a recent interview, while he was standing in a clubhouse hallway at Arm & Hammer Park, Peter O'Brien's conversation was interrupted by a Thunder teammate playing reporter.

"How do you hit so many home runs?'' he asked.

O'Brien laughed.

The question for O'Brien, now a first baseman for Double-A Trenton, is not so much how he's capable of crushing baseballs at such a prolific rate but whether he can keep doing it. And whether the Yankees ultimately will find him a position that someday enables him to flex that muscle in the majors.

Through his first 63 games this season, including Saturday, O'Brien has 23 home runs, including 13 in 33 games since his May 9 promotion to Trenton, where he's putting the boom in the Thunder. During his time there, he has gone deep once every 10.1 at-bats.

The Orioles' Nelson Cruz, who leads the majors with 21 homers, averages one every 11.7 at-bats. Jose Abreu does it once every 11.2 at-bats for the White Sox.

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Trenton manager Tony Franklin seems more surprised by the rare occasions when the fences actually are able to contain O'Brien, who had a slash line of .234/.279/.547 with 30 RBIs for the Thunder through Friday.

"Every time he comes to the plate, he's one of those guys, you think he's going to hit a home run,'' Franklin said. "It doesn't always happen. But when it does happen, it's pretty special.''

What Franklin means by that is that O'Brien, who turns 24 next month, doesn't leave much doubt when he connects.

The outfield walls at Arm & Hammer Park are piggy-backed by billboards that extend another 30 feet or so above the yellow demarcation lines for a home run. Also, in center, there is a towering blacked-out batter's eye.

O'Brien regularly clears those barricades. During a round of batting practice last weekend, he peppered the very top level of ad space, slamming line drives off the leftfield banners for Stark & Stark attorneys-at-law and White Eagle Printing Company.

Franklin describes O'Brien, a second-round pick by the Yankees in 2012, as possessing "easy power,'' an uncommon trait he said also was displayed by the likes of Darryl Strawberry, Frank Howard and Dick Allen. That's more than 1,000 home runs combined right there, but Franklin was referring more to the flight patterns than the frequency.

Strawberry was legendary for clearing scoreboards. Howard had upper-deck seats at RFK Stadium painted white to commemorate his long-distance drives. One of Allen's mammoth shots was estimated at 529 feet.

"He just takes a nice, easy swing and produces prodigious home runs,'' Franklin said of O'Brien. "Balls go out of the ballpark and they make a loud noise.''

It's the other part of O'Brien's game -- the glove half -- that has made him a work-in-progress at a number of positions. He's played catcher, third base, even rightfield. But when Franklin got the call on June 6 to start getting him reps at first base, that shed some light on the Yankees' plans.

The assignment was so new that O'Brien didn't own a first baseman's glove. And when he went through a number of fielding drills during BP, he looked like a novice, whether it was charging a bunt or figuring out which foot to extend in reaching for a throw.

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But with Gary Sanchez, the club's top catching prospect, sharing the Trenton roster with O'Brien, he can't expect much time behind the plate.

Plus, O'Brien has struggled at third base -- 18 errors in 38 games at high Class A Tampa last season -- as well as rightfield. He sounded eager to try first base. Almost relieved.

"I think it's going to come a little bit easier,'' O'Brien said, "because at third base, you have to move a lot more and kind of set your feet to throw. First base is pretty much just pick it, catch some throws and drop bombs.''

O'Brien smiled. Obviously, that last part is what he enjoys the most, and with the dearth of righthanded power in the game, he's a valuable commodity -- either for the Yankees or as a potential trade chip as the July 31 non-waiver deadline gets closer.

That value grows with O'Brien as a catcher, but maybe the best thing that can happen is to move him from behind the plate, where the added responsibility can hurt a prospect's offensive development.

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Look what has happened with the Mets' Travis d'Arnaud, who was demoted last week after wilting offensively at the major-league level. Josh Donaldson became an MVP candidate after the A's were forced to move him from catcher to third base.

"It's definitely easier,'' Donaldson said. "You get to play every day. You don't have to deal with the nicks and bruises catching comes with. Or handling an entire pitching staff, calling a game.''

O'Brien felt the same way.

"As a catcher, you have to focus on a lot of things -- receiving, blocking, throwing,'' he said. "Your first priority is the pitcher, so everything else comes second to that.

"At first base, your priority isn't other things, so it kind of slows the game down. And you might be able to focus in between innings on your at-bat instead of what you're going to throw the next three hitters in the lineup.''

That peace of mind could help O'Brien move up sooner rather than later. But if he continues with this power surge, the Yankees will figure out a way to make the necessary adjustments. Even if O'Brien still has to do that himself.

"The people in the organization feel like, let's see what he looks like at third, let's see what he looks like at first, let's see what he looks like in the outfield,'' Franklin said, "because he looks pretty doggone good at the plate.''

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