In a somewhat unusual deal, the St. Louis Cardinals and Seattle Mariners have made a prospect for prospect deal. Marco Gonzales, who was in the majors a year after getting drafted in the first round back in 2013, is on the move to Seattle and the Mariners are sending outfield prospect Tyler O’Neill to the Cardinals.
Gonzales helped the Cardinals on their way to the playoffs in 2014 and was a reliever in October. Everything then went backwards for Gonzales as a shoulder injury hurt his numbers in 2015 and Tommy John surgery robbed him of putting up any numbers at all last year. Gonzales has rebounded this year, putting up decent numbers in Triple-A and getting a spot start earlier this year.
In exchange for Gonzales, the Cardinals receive Tyler O’Neill. The right-handed outfielder was called a “dense pillar of meat” in Eric Lohenhagen’s FanGraphs write-up before the season started. Going into the season, O’Neill was generally considered one of the top-50 or so prospects in baseball. Baseball America had him 38, Baseball Prospectus had him 53, MLB.com had him 33, while FanGraphs and Keith Law at ESPN both had him on the just missed list. When Ben Markham put together an aggregate list (which didn’t include ESPN), O’Neill was 33rd.
O’Neill rose in those prospect lists due to a great Age-21 season in Double-A where he hit .293/.374/.508 for a wRC+ (not park-adjusted) of 152. That’s really, really good, and Katoh, which is a stat-based prospect rankings, had O’Neill the 13th-best prospect in baseball. O’Neill is a powerful player, hitting 24 homers last year and already has 19 so far this year, but can also run a bit with 21 steals in 25 chances over the last few seasons.
On the negative side, O’Neill does strike out a lot, exceeding 25% in each of the last three seasons. He pairs those strikeouts with a healthy, double-digit walk rate, making him a pretty classic three-true outcomes slugger. O’Neill’s numbers aren’t great this season despite the homers with a .244/.328/.479 line that is roughly average for Triple-A.
O’Neill started off the season slowly. On June 2, O’Neill had a .208/.282/.371 batting line with a 65 wRC+ and only five home runs in 220 plate appearances. That performance likely caused O’Neill to fall in the eyes of prospect raters as he doesn’t appear on most of the midseason rankings. Since then, O’Neill has turned things around in dramatic fashion. Over his last 40 games, O’Neill has hit .289/.386/.618 with a 153 wRC+ and 14 homers in 176 plate appearances, essentially replicating his full-season line from 2016 against better competition.
If you want to compare O’Neill value-wise by rankings to a prospect currently in the Cardinals system, Harrison Bader is probably a decent comp. If you had the opportunity to keep Gonzales or Bader right now, you would probably pick Bader, which helps to show why this trade makes a ton of sense.
Gonzales pitched well this season, but he was taking up a spot on the Cardinals 40-man and had been passed in the Cardinals system by Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, and Luke Weaver in the high-minors without even considering John Gant, Sandy Alcantara, and Zac Gallen. The Cardinals have a lot of pitching depth, and Gonzales was about to turn into a reliever at best. Flipping while he still has value as a starter is a solid move.
O’Neill gives the Cardinals another top-100-ish prospect. What is role on the big-league club might be remains to be seen, but he could get flipped in a bigger deal, or he could make it easier to move another outfielder. Anything can happen, but it’s hard not to like this deal in terms of value and potential for the Cardinals organization.