The Cardinals made a move today, sending Marco Gonzales, he of the magic trick changeup and exceedingly long medical history, to the Seattle Mariners in exchange for Tyler O’Neill, a just-turned 22 year old outfielder described by Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs as, “a dense pillar of meat.”
I’m going to back away slowly from any meat pillar descriptions; my own history with jokes about genitalia in these pages is long and varied, and I don’t feel I need to prove my fifth-grade bona fides any longer. Ergo, I’ll play this bit of scouting/analysis straight. Or as straight as I am capable, anyhow.
First off, let me say I’m sorry to see Marco go. He had been passed over by multiple pitchers in the organisation as top-end future depth, and probably missed his window to really step in as a rotation mainstay for the Cardinals. All the same, he possessed one truly dominant pitch, tended to struggle the more hitters saw him, and just never did quite develop another quality offering to really complement his fastball/change combo. Still, the 45 fastball and true 70 grade changeup, I think, could have made him a very good reliever, and I’m a little sad we’ll never get the chance to see what that would have looked like.
All that being said, the Cardinals may very well have just pulled off a heist with this deal. Whereas Gonzales was, in the Redbird system at least, a low priority as back-end starting depth or potentially a Swiss Army knife sort of relief arm, Tyler O’Neill is a legit power prospect of the sort the Cardinals only sort of have.
First off, the body. O’Neill really is crazily ripped, even moreso than Randal Grichuk, who would be his nearest comp physically. The fact O’Neill is sub six feet (listed at 5’11”, but we all understand there’s a little fudging there, right?), and so thickly muscled gives him a bit of a fireplug appearance, but he’s still very athletic.
The raw power is huge, a legit 65-70, while the game power is a full grade below that. There’s a lot of swing and miss in his game to go along with that huge raw power, and it keeps him from fully tapping into his strength. If this sounds like I’m just copying and pasting from a Randal Grichuk or Harrison Bader scouting report, that’s not a coincidence. O’Neill fits very well into that oeuvre of hitter the Cardinals have collected over the past several years, that of the low-contact, high-power slugger. Paul DeJong is in here as well.
The one really notable difference for O’Neill, as compared to the Bader/Grichuk/DeJong camp, is the fact he possesses much greater patience than any of those other three. And therein lies O’Neill’s chance to substantially exceed that kind of ceiling.
Straight out of high school in 2013, O’Neill headed off to rookie ball and walked a little over 10% of the time. He graduated to full-season ball in 2014, playing the majority of his season at Low A, and saw his discipline fall off a bit, to just over 8%. That’s not terrible, but it’s also not great. He moved up to High A in 2015, and saw the plate discipline degrade further. The walk rate fell to 6.5%, the strikeouts ballooned to slightly over 30%, and now you really are looking at a Grichukian sort of profile. At that point, O’Neill was on track to fall off the prospect map, the victim of not enough contact to take advantage of his tremendous physical abilities.
But then, last season, he moved up to Double A, and things really started to turn around for O’Neill. Making the toughest jump in the minors, he substantially improved his profile, cutting his strikeout rate by over four percentage points, down to 26.1%, and more importantly, boosted his strikeout rate all the way to almost 11%. That’s something like an 80% improvement over his High A walk rate, and turns that on-base profile from unworkable into something pretty solid. He’s not getting on base like Matt Carpenter or anything, but a double-digit walk rate, even with a 25%+ strikeout rate, gives a player a far more stable foundation upon which to build.
In Triple A this year, O’Neill has basically done the same thing he did last year, in regards to plate discipline, with an 11.1% walk rate and 27.3% strikeouts. Obviously, you would like to see him cut the K rate if at all possible, but he may not be able to. As long as he maintains a walk rate above 10%, though, he should have a solid base to work from.
He runs well enough in the outfield, and is actually sneaky quick on the bases. He’s not a center fielder, but the arm is plenty strong for right. He’s not going to be Jason Heyward out there, but I think it’s safe to say he’s not going to be a noticeable problem, either. O’Neill falls into that 80% of outfielders whose defense you’re probably never really going to notice, I believe.
The swing is interesting, in that it’s flatter than you would expect from a guy with legit 30+ homer power. In that way he is also like Harrison Bader, who has a very rotary, flattish swing of his own. Widespread stance, which I think I would consider narrowing slightly to get an easier weight transfer going, but overall the swing is probably fine. It’s not my favourite, but I’ve certainly seen worse.
Overall, O’Neill is cut from a very similar cloth as Bader, but is a notch or two better as a prospect, I believe. The walk rate alone gives him a fairly substantial advantage, even if the contact issues are very similar.
I’ll say it again: this is a hell of a return for a pitcher of Marco Gonzales’s caliber, pedigree, and situation. O’Neill steps into an organisational outfield situation only moderately less crowded than the pitching picture, but all the same, the Cards legitimately didn’t have much of a spot for Gonzales, and picked up one of the more intriguing power bat prospects in the minors in return.
The Michael Girsch trading era is off to a tremendous start.