Veteran Help: Saints Sign Former Big League Pitcher, Cretin-Derham Hall Star, Jake Esch, Triple-A Catcher Justin O'Conner
ST. PAUL, MN - Good things apparently do come to those who wait. While many teams in the American Association sign the bulk of their roster before Major League spring training, St. Paul Saints manager George Tsamis likes to wait until Major League teams start the season. He capitalizes on the domino effect from organizations and it once again paid off as the Saints signed two veteran players, a frontline starter and a first round catcher. Jake Esch, a St. Paul product who played at Cretin-Derham Hall and pitched in the Majors for the Miami Marlins and San Diego Padres, and Justin O'Conner, a first round draft pick by the Tampa Bay Rays, both signed with the Saints for the 2018 season.
The 28-year-old Esch began last season in the Major Leagues with the San Diego Padres. After walking two batters in a relief appearance against the Colorado Rockies in his lone appearance on April 12, he was assigned to Triple-A El Paso. He tossed 4.2 innings in a start allowing four runs on seven hits on April 17 and then was assigned to Double-A San Antonio. He pitched well with the Missions going 0-3 with a 2.86 ERA in six games (four starts) with one complete game. In 34.2 innings pitched he walked 16 and struck out 19 while opponents hit .278 against him. Unfortunately, an injury caused him to miss nearly two months of the season and he did rehab stints in the Arizona League and at High-A Lake Elsinore. He closed the season with San Antonio and allowed just four earned runs over his final three appearances, spanning 18.0 innings. Overall, he was 1-9, but a solid 4.62 ERA in 15 appearances (13) starts with a pair of complete games.
Esch was an 11th round draft pick by the Marlins in 2011 out of Georgia Tech and was 3-1 with a 3.38 ERA in 12 relief appearances in his first season of pro ball between the Gulf Coast League and Low-A in the New York-Penn League.
In 2012 Esch split time between Low-A Jamestown and Single-A Greensboro and went 4-3 with a 3.15 ERA and one save in 16 games (six starts). In 68.2 innings pitched he struck out 53, opponents hit .232 against him, and he had a solid 1.20 WHIP. He pitched his final six appearances at Greensboro and his team reached the playoffs, but lost three-games-to-one to Asheville. Over his final four appearances of the regular season, all starts, he was 1-2 with a 2.08 ERA fanning 21 in 26.0 innings pitched. Esch also pitched for Great Britain in the World Baseball Classic Qualifiers and allowed two runs in 6.0 innings getting a win over the Czech Republic.
Esch moved through the organization and spent all of 2013 at High-A Jupiter where he went 2-10 with a 4.89 ERA in 23 games (19 starts). In 94.0 innings pitched he struck out 57 while opponents hit .270 against him. He began the season by not allowing a run in his first 16.0 innings pitched. He also struck out a career high nine on August 20.
In 2014 Esch once again pitched in Jupiter and lowered his ERA by nearly a run going 6-6 with a 4.05 ERA and one complete game in 25 games (24 starts). In 135.2 innings pitched he struck out 105 and opponents hit .276 against him. He had eight separate appearances of 7.0 innings allowing two earned runs or less including a 7.0 inning complete game on August 14 where he allowed three runs (one earned) on four hits while fanning six. He struck out six or more nine times including eight on May 20 at Tampa. Over his final five starts he allowed five earned runs in 34.2 innings pitched.
Over the next two seasons Esch earned an All-Star Game appearance with Double-A Jacksonville. In 2015 he went 6-5 with a 3.48 ERA in 15 starts with the Suns. In 85.1 innings pitched he struck out 68 and opponents hit just .223 against him. He had four separate starts of 6.0 innings or more without allowing a run and struck out six or more six times. Esch got his first taste of Triple-A, pitching in New Orleans during two separate stints on the year. Overall, in New Orleans he was 1-3 with a 5.40 ERA in six starts, but had a 3.96 ERA before allowing seven runs in his final outing.
Not only did Esch repeat his Double-A All-Star performance in 2016, but he got his first taste of the Majors. He went 10-9 with a 4.03 ERA in 22 starts in Jacksonville. In 118.1 innings pitched he struck out 82 and opponents hit .264 against him. Esch was promoted to New Orleans on August 9. He pitched in four games and was 2-1 with a 5.70 ERA including a 7.0 inning complete game, five-hit shutout in his first start on August 9. He was called up to the Marlins on August 31 and pitched well in his three starts going 0-1 with a 5.54 ERA. In 13.0 innings he struck out 10 and opponents hit .324 against him. His Major League debut came in New York against the Mets on August 31 where he allowed two runs on seven hits in 4.1 innings. His first Major League strikeout came in the first inning against Asdrubal Cabrera.
The Padres claimed Esch off waiver on March 31, 2017 where he spent all of last season.
Esch was a three-sport athlete at Cretin-Derham playing baseball, basketball and football. He was the Pioneer Press Player of the Year in baseball in 2007, leading them to the state title. He was All-State during his junior and senior season and was 16-1 with a 1.50 ERA and 125 strikeouts in 121.0 innings pitched.
The 26-year-old O'Conner split time between Double-A Montgomery and Triple-A Durham last year in the Tampa Bay Rays organization. Between the two stops he hit .227 with eight home runs and 44 RBI in 85 games. In 309 at bats he scored 30 runs, smacked 19 doubles, one triple, a .288 on base percentage, and .372 slugging percentage. He threw out 24.4% of base stealers in an off year for O'Conner. In his career he has thrown out an astounding 43.7% of would be base stealers (for context Yadier Molina is the Major League record holder throwing out 40.98% in his career). O'Conner's Durham Bulls not only won the International League Championship, but also the Triple-A National Championship 5-3 over the Memphis Redbirds.
O'Conner was a first round draft pick (31st overall) by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2010 out of Cowan (IN) High School, becoming the first catcher taken in the first round in Rays history. He spent the entire season in the Rookie Gulf Coast League and hit .211 with three homers and 29 RBI in 48 games. He threw out 43.6% of base stealers, an incredible percentage made even more remarkable by the fact he didn't start catching until his senior year in high school. The Rays would lose two-games-to-one in the GCL Championship Series to the Phillies.
In 2011 O'Conner spent the entire season with Princeton in the Rookie Appalachian League. He hit .157 with nine home runs and 29 RBI in 48 games and was tops in the league in throwing out base runners at 35.6%.
O'Conner didn't catch in 2012, instead he was used as a designated hitter in all 58 starts spending the entire season at Low-A Hudson Valley in the New York-Penn League. Overall, he hit .223 with five home runs and 29 RBI in 59 games (he entered one game as a pinch hitter). The Renegades claimed the New York-Penn League Championship defeating Tri-City two-games-to-one.
In 2013 O'Conner spent the entire season at Single-A Bowling Green in the Midwest League where he hit .233 with career highs in home runs, 14, and RBI, 56. He homered in three straight games from June 9-12. O'Conner threw out an amazing 55.6% of base stealers and once again his team reached the playoffs, but lost two-games-to-none in the quarterfinals to Fort Wayne.
The breakout season for O'Conner came in 2014 when he received numerous accolades. He spent most of the season at High-A Charlotte in the Florida State League and hit .282 with 10 home runs and 44 RBI in 80 games. In 319 at bats he scored 30 runs, smashed a career high 31 doubles, two triples, had a .486 on base percentage and a .486 slugging percentage, for an outstanding .806 OPS. He finished fourth in the Florida State League in doubles, had a 14-game hitting streak from July 3-26, and threw out 50% of base stealers. He was a mid-season All-Star, but more importantly, was chosen to play in the Futures Game on the U.S. squad where he went 1-1. Some of his teammates during the game were Noah Syndergaard, Kris Bryant and Corey Seager. O'Conner was promoted to Double-A Montgomery in the Southern League and hit .263 with two homers and three RBI in 21 games and threw out nine of 12 base runners. Following the season, he was rewarded with an MiLB.com Organizational All-Star, Baseball America High Class-A All-Star, and Post-Season All-Star in the FSL. He played in the prestigious Arizona Fall League where he was selected as a Rising Star and was on the All-Prospect Team.
The 2014 success allowed O'Conner to spend all of 2015 in Montgomery where he hit .231 with nine homers and 53 RBI in 107 games. In 429 at bats he slugged 27 doubles, three triples, a .255 on base percentage, and .371 slugging percentage. He threw out 48.3% of base stealers and led the league among catchers in total chances (865), putouts (759) and assists (91). Perhaps the most astounding statistical anomaly was O'Conner reached on catcher's interference six times during the season. The Biscuits made the playoffs, but lost three-games-to-one to Chattanooga in the semi-finals.
O'Conner spent most of 2016 injured and played in just 20 games between the Gulf Coast League and Montgomery.
O'Conner was considered the top prep backstop in the 2010 draft. ESPN analyst Peter Gammons described him as a "very athletic catcher," and called him "one of the fastest-rising players heading into the draft."
The Saints have now signed 20 players this off-season.
LHP - Ryan Boelter
RHP - Mike Devine
RHP - Jake Esch
LHP - Ken Frosch
RHP - Eddie Medina
RHP - Vinny Nittoli
RHP - Ryan Schlosser
RHP - Matt Solter
RHP - John Straka
RHP - Beck Wheeler
C - Justin O'Conner
OF - Kes Carter
OF - Chad Hinshaw
OF - Max Murphy
OF - Jordan Smith
INF - Josh Allen
INF - Dante Bichette Jr.
INF/OF - Jayce Boyd
INF - Noah Perio
INF Brady Shoemaker
The Saints had signed infielder Jake Hager, but he signed with the Milwaukee Brewers organization on February 20. RHP Tyler Warmoth was signed on April 9, but has elected to pursue other opportunities outside of baseball.
The Saints begin the 2018 season on the road against the Gary SouthShore Railcats on Friday, May 18. The Saints first game at home is on Monday, May 21 against the newest member of the American Association, the Chicago Dogs, at 3:05 p.m.
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American Association Stories from April 16, 2018
- FanBags High School Challenge Games Postponed - Gary SouthShore Railcats
- Veteran Help: Saints Sign Former Big League Pitcher, Cretin-Derham Hall Star, Jake Esch, Triple-A Catcher Justin O'Conner - St. Paul Saints
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