If the Yankees insist on finding another left-handed reliever for the 2012 bullpen, I hope it’s along the lines of the player they acquired earlier today. Jon Heyman reports that the Yankees have signed LHP Mike O’Connor, presumably to a minor league deal*. He might not have the name value of Damaso Marte or Pedro Feliciano — in fact, I’m sure that most readers hadn’t even heard of him — but that’s the whole point. Identifying a few under-the-radar players could be just as effective as signing a name brand to a multiyear deal.
* Editor’s Note: Joel Sherman confirmed that it is in fact a minor league deal.
Those who do know O’Connor likely caught one of his nine appearances for the Mets in 2011. They called him up in early May, and he served them generally well. Only two runs scored on his watch, and they came in his final two appearances of the year. After allowing a run against the Pirates the Mets optioned him back to AAA, eventually designating him for assignment.
Most of O’Connor’s big league experience came in 2006, when he threw 105 innings in 20 starts and one relief appearance for the Nationals. His 4.80 ERA and 5.37 FIP left plenty to be desired. By 2009 it had become apparent that his low-strikeout ways just weren’t cutting it as a starter, even in the minor leagues. That year he spent time with three different organizations, and by the end was pitching almost exclusively in relief.
In 2010 he caught on with the Mets and made zero starts for the AAA Buffalo Bisons, and his numbers spiked. His strikeout rate jumped to almost a batter per inning while his walk rate remained low. It amounted to a 2.67 ERA and 2.95 FIP in 70.2 innings over 51 outings. The longball gave him something of a problem in 2010, but he still struck out plenty, 9.85 per nine, while walking under three per nine. He struck out eight of the 29 batters he faced in the majors.
As expected, O’Connor was death on lefties in the minors. During his 2010 campaign he still sported a 51.4 percent ground ball rate, 2.03 FIP, and 2.41 xFIP against lefties, striking out 31 in 29.3 innings. While Driveline’s MiLB splits doesn’t have 2011 figures, his MiLB.com page shows a similarly dominant story: 2.70 ERA, 2.09 GB/FB, 30 strikeouts in 23.1 innings vs. LHB. That doesn’t guarantee major league success, but it does demonstrate that he has a leg up when facing same-handed batters.
This signing won’t bowl over anyone. Chances are we’ll never see O’Connor in the Bronx. But he’s an interesting option if the Yankees don’t want to spend big on yet another lefty reliever. They’ve been burned before by that method — even righties on multiyear deals have burned them. O’Connor is an under the radar option who could perhaps step in and complement Boone Logan in the pen. If he doesn’t, there’s no harm done. I sincerely hope the Yankees try to find more bench and bullpen solutions along the lines of O’Connor this winter.