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Tyler O’Neill and Seriously, Folks, the Outfield

One of the best stories of the minor league playoffs has been the explosion of the Cardinals’ top-ranked outfield prospect. His route to the majors, though, is as-yet still tough to see.

Milwaukee Brewers v Seattle Mariners
Nope, I don’t know where you’re going to play either, Ty.
Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

The Memphis Redbirds are, as of this moment, engaged in a fight for their baseballing lives. The Pacific Coast League championship series is now tied at two, as the Redbirds have dropped two straight to the El Paso Chihuahuas after winning the first two games of the series in Memphis. The series will wrap up tonight, for good or ill, with a decisive game five in El Paso. (Yes, that’s three in a row in the team without home field advantage’s ballpark, and yes, the minor leagues are kind of weird sometimes.)

There have been several players who have put together excellent playoff performances this September, but for Memphis the single biggest story has been the breakout of Tyler O’Neill, slugger par excellence and utterly inexplicable trade pickup at the deadline. I say inexplicable because O’Neill, who began the season as the second-ranked prospect in the Seattle Mariners’ system, came to the Cardinals as the return for Marco Gonzales. The move was largely panned from the M’s perspective at the time as a massive overpay, but there was some thought that Gonzales could potentially help stabilise a Seattle rotation that had been more or less a dumpster fire pretty much the whole season.

Spoiler alert: Marco Gonzales has not stabilised the Seattle rotation, as he currently sports a 6.07 ERA in slightly less than 30 innings. So...not what Dipoto and Company were hoping for, I wouldn’t think.

On the other hand, Tyler O’Neill came to the Cardinal organisation with his prospect arrow pointing slightly down, the result of a Triple A season that wasn’t quite keeping up with his torrid 2016 campaign, and has now reversed course pretty dramatically. The stock is rising for O’Neill in a serious way, in fact.

The reason for his stock turning around so decisively is the fact O’Neill, after joining the Cardinal organisation, pushed his power production to a new, almost unprecedented level for him. To wit, in 396 plate appearances for the Mariners’ Triple A club this season, O’Neill hit 19 home runs (which isn’t bad at all; that’s roughly a 30-homer pace over a full ~600 PA season), and posted an isolated slugging percentage of .215. After joining Memphis (and, it should probably be noted, moving to a slightly less hitter-friendly home park, I believe, as Memphis is a tougher park in which to hit than Tacoma), O’Neill amassed 161 plate appearances, or right around 40% of his Tacoma total. In those 161 PAs, the former Rainier (just thought I’d toss in Tacoma is the Rainiers, since they’ve been a subject of my recent writings...), slugged a dozen long balls. So ~40% of the plate appearances, over 60% as many home runs. He also, perhaps more importantly, put up a .295 ISO, which while certainly driven primarily by the homers also included lots of loud contact that stayed inside the park as well.

The one worrisome statistic in O’Neill’s line from his time in Memphis is his walk rate, which fell from a robust 11.1% with Tacoma to just 6.2% with the Redbirds. Now, to be fair, it’s difficult to criticise a hitter for not taking a walk when he’s mashing to the tune of a near-.300 ISO, but you always worry when a hitter shows a lack of selectivity and patience at the plate. (See also: Grichuk, Randal.) Having watched a decent amount of O’Neill’s games after the trade, he did seem to be pressing a bit early on to try and make an impression on his new team, but later on I think the aggression at the plate came down to the fact he was just crazy locked-in the last few weeks of the season.

As good, and exciting, as O’Neill’s performance in Memphis was this year, he’s turned things up even another notch here in the postseason. Over nine playoff games with the Redbirds, O’Neill has come to the plate 43 times, hit three doubles, four home runs, and put up an overall line of .282/.349/.667. That’s a 1.016 OPS and a whopping .385 ISO.

The power is great, but even better is what he’s done in non-contact situations. He’s drawn four walks, which is a solid, if not spectacular, 9.3%, but he’s also only struck out six times, which translates to just a 13.9% K rate. Now, obviously we’re dealing with an incredibly small sample here, but playing against high-level competition in a pressure-packed environment, Tyler O’Neill has shown off the best plate approach of probably any 40-50 PA sample of his career. I’ve watched the majority of Memphis’s playoff games, and O’Neill has stood out head and shoulders above pretty much every other hitter on the field. He’s attacked, aggressively, every pitch in the zone he could drive, and hasn’t really chased much of anything outside the zone. It’s been an extraordinarily impressive performance.

So that’s all great, and I’ve got plenty more to say about Tyler O’Neill at some point this offseason, including taking a look at how his swing has evolved since he was drafted in 2013 to the current day, but right now I’m going to leave him be with just this bit of analysis. He’s been the best hitter on the field, not just for Memphis, but the best hitter period, in the games I’ve watched this postseason.

Oh, did I also mention the Redbirds have had him playing center field, of all places? And that he’s been making plays like this?

There is, however, a larger point to be made here when talking about how Tyler O’Neill has improved his stock so dramatically down the stretch this year.

See, the thing is, Tyler O’Neill is an outfielder (hence my mention of him playing center field a moment ago), and the Cardinals have a lot of outfielders. Like, a lot a lot. Now, I know we probably all know to a certain extent that the Cards have a lot of outfielders; the word ‘logjam’ gets thrown around a fair bit in relation to the organisation’s depth at the position. But watching O’Neill make a serious push down the stretch here for a 2017 spring training invite and perhaps a postseason MVP award (if there is such a thing in the minors), has made me consider all over again just how seriously jammed up the Cardinals are in the outfield right now.

First off, we have to consider the locks for next year’s roster. At this point, Dexter Fowler has to be considered a lock, I would think, because he is just now wrapping up year one of a five-year deal he signed just this past offseason, and has a complete no-trade clause as part of said deal. Now, I won’t say it’s 100% a certainty he’s with the Cardinals in 2018; the club’s move of Mike Leake should give us all pause when considering just how dedicated the club is to moving in whatever direction they feel is best at a given moment. Leake pitched about a year and half of a five-year contract for the Cardinals, and then they decided to move in a different direction. And paid to make the issue go away, in fact. I wouldn’t expect Fowler to be in that boat right now — he’s put up a very good 117 wRC+ in 440 plate appearances and been worth 2.1 WAR, even with horrific defensive numbers in center, so he’s obviously still producing serious value with the bat in his hands — but hey, if Johnny Mo decided to turn the roster completely over this offseason, then Fowler might be moved. Seems very unlikely, though.

Tommy Pham is a near-lock as well, I would think, for the simple fact he’s the club’s best player, and that’s a tough thing to deal away. Obviously, the eyes and the injury history are going to make one a bit nervous when trying to decide if he’s a cornerstone for the near future, but they also probably mean one would struggle to get full value on the trade market. One does not deal five-win players for less than full value, and as hard as it is to believe, Pham has eclipsed the 5.0 WAR mark by both f and b measures.

So we have

  • Tommy Pham
  • Dexter Fowler

seemingly locked in for 2018.

Then we can move on to the next tier of guys. It’s interesting; both Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk have had huge swoops up and down in their performances this season, but at the end it seems that we really shouldn’t have changed our opinions on either all that much. Grichuk is endlessly exciting when he’s going good, but the plate discipline simply hasn’t really improved, and there are stretches when he basically does nothing but serve as a fan for the people in the front couple rows. He’s probably about a league-average hitter when all is said and done, with the power and on-base fighting each other for supremacy and finally deciding to just call it a day between 95 and 105 wRC+.

Piscotty, meanwhile, has had a brutal season in many ways, with some of his on-field struggles possibly related to off-field issues (and that’s not anyone making excuses; sometimes life just gets in the way of doing your job at your absolute best), but since coming back to the majors on the day of the Little League Classic, Stephen has put up a pretty solid .844 OPS. It’s still not going to be the season he hoped to have, but there’s reason to think going forward Piscotty will be closer to the ~110-120 wRC+ hitter he’s been in his career than the below-average hitter we’ve watched this year. Not a star, but a solid regular in right field.

There is the fact Piscotty signed a very nice contract extension early in the season suggesting he’ll be here awhile, but if I’m being honest I would bet money he’s dealt this offseason to a West Coast team. Situations change.

Still, at least for now, both he and Grichuk are on the 2018 Cardinals. So that’s

  • Tommy Pham
  • Dexter Fowler
  • Stephen Piscotty
  • Randal Grichuk

all potentially on the roster next year.

Now we come to the mystery man, Jose Martinez. Martinez has been far and away the most productive hitter in the Cards’ outfield this year, non-Pham division, but his utterly unpredictable rise to prominence feels unreal still at this point. I wrote about Martinez’s remarkable season less than two weeks ago, making the inevitable J.D. Martinez comparison. On Thursday, Dave Cameron wrote about Jose, making the same player comp. It’s hard to believe a career minor-leaguer could suddenly jump to prominence like this at 29, but you look at the numbers and goddamned if it isn’t hard to not believe.

For the season, Jose Martinez has a 138 wRC+. A walk rate near 10%, a strikeout rate below 20%, and an ISO .221. The statcast data tells us he’s killing the ball. And actually, it gets even more intriguing: since the beginning of August, a period covering 120 plate appearances (so a small sample, but not a tiny one, you understand), Martinez is running a 164 wRC+, with a 12.5% walk rate, a 15.8% strikeout rate, and a .229 ISO. No, the .375 BABIP over that period isn’t sustainable, but the power and non-contact skills cannot be ignored.

Of course, what the hell we do in terms of projecting Martinez forward is anyone’s guess. The public projection systems don’t buy the power yet, but we’re moving into an era where granular batted-ball data is going to help discover true talent shifts earlier and faster. Let’s just hope the Cardinals have a handle on what Martinez should be expected to do next year and beyond.

So that’s five holdovers from this year’s squad, in terms of more-or-less full time players. Then we can consider the two sneak-preview guys from this year, in Harrison Bader and Magneuris Sierra. Now, neither one is a slam dunk, and Sierra is a bit further off than Bader, I would argue, but we also saw some pretty elite defensive tools from Magneuris, and those play right now, even if the bat really doesn’t. As for Bader, his offensive profile concerns me, as I’m not sure the power is of the sort that makes up for what will probably be a pretty low OBP, but having watched him in both Memphis and St. Louis this year, I also think he’s at least an average center fielder, and that carries a lot of value on its own. A league-average bat and average center field defense is something like a 2.5-3.0 win player, I think. At the very least, I think Bader makes Randal Grichuk tradeable.

So now we have

  • Tommy Pham
  • Dexter Fowler
  • Stephen Piscotty
  • Randal Grichuk
  • Jose Martinez
  • Harrison Bader
  • Magneuris Sierra

on the outfield depth chart, in some order. I’m putting it that way because Martinez is still a bit of a question mark, I think, but I also think it’s much more likely one of the guys above him would be traded. So, you know, arrange the names in your mind however you prefer.

However, the thing I would like to point out is that we now have seven players on the depth chart who will be under club control next year. There are three starting jobs in the outfield. You need a quality fourth. Depending on what kind of versatility you have elsewhere on the roster, you may or may not put much stock in a fifth outfielder. At most, though, you’re talking five jobs, probably more like four to four and a half, and seven names already.

At which point we now come to Tyler O’Neill, the outfielder the Cardinals picked up from Seattle prior to the July deadline this year who proceeded to tear up the PCL and elevate his stock considerably.

For the second time in this column, I’m going to use the phrase spoiler alert, and tell you that there will be two outfielders in my top five on the offseason prospect list this year. I haven’t actually written the list yet, by any means, nor really even started sketching it out, but I have a pretty good idea of the top 5-7 guys. And in that top five you have Tyler O’Neill, he of the He-Man arms and He-Man homers, and Randy Arozarena, the multifaceted Cuban defector who made it to Double A Springfield in his stateside debut this year, and was not at all phased by the level of competition there. Now, admittedly, Arozarena slowed down late in the season, likely the result of a bit of fatigue following intermittent playing time as he made his way from Cuba through Mexican winter baseball into the minor leagues, but even so the numbers are extremely exciting. He showed big power in the Florida State League, a brutal place to hit, then went to Springfield and showed off great plate discipline, walking almost 14% of the time and striking out in under 18% of his plate appearances. He went 18/25 (72%), in stolen base attempts. He showed off great wheels in all three outfield spots, but has the range to be a plus center fielder. In short, Randy Arozarena has a chance at being a five tool player, with the power probably still the tool with the most questions attached, simply because he’s not physically all that large.

O’Neill is very, very close to big league ready, particularly in light of the work he’s done late in the season and into the postseason in terms of his plate approach. Arozarena could probably use a little more time, but he posted a 115 wRC+ in Double A. There’s a chance he’s pushing for big league time by about midseason of 2018. So maybe not at the beginning of 2018, but I’d say by September of next year at the latest, the outfield depth chart for the Cardinals, in terms of major league-ready players, would probably go

  • Tommy Pham
  • Dexter Fowler
  • Stephen Piscotty
  • Randal Grichuk
  • Jose Martinez
  • Harrison Bader
  • Magneuris Sierra
  • Tyler O’Neill
  • Randy Arozarena

and you can mentally rearrange the names if you like. Personally, I feel Sierra probably falls a bit in that group, due to the greater power potential of so many of the others, but again, it’s tough to argue he couldn’t be a real asset playing center every day for some major league club capable of hiding a slap hitter down toward the bottom of the lineup.

After Arozarena, we can go to guys like Oscar Mercado, who finished the season with a 114 wRC+ in Springfield and played outstanding defense, not to mention swiping 38 bases. He’s not ready yet, but will have to be put on the 40 if the Cardinals don’t want him to be a Padre next season. Adolis Garcia is probably even closer to big league ready than Mercado; he put up a 124 wRC+ in Springfield and a 110 at Memphis. Garcia is probably the outfielder in the system I would most peg as an absolutely ideal fourth outfielder, and we could very well see him in the majors in 2018.

Now, lower than Garcia on the depth chart we start getting to players like Scott Hurst and Dylan Carlson. Maybe Nick Plummer if he can get his fortunes turned around. Interesting prospects, certainly, but not guys pushing for big league jobs in the near future. So we can cut the September 2018 depth chart off at around ten or eleven names, I think.

Obviously, I’m not projecting the Cardinals to make moves here, even though we all know it’s likely they will, specifically because I want to outline just how much of a necessity it is they do. This offseason isn’t going to be a matter of the Cardinals trying to make moves because they want to; they literally have to make changes with this current roster to consolidate some of the depth into quality, or else end up probably losing half a dozen very useful players to Rule V drafts over the next couple years.

One could argue that when your outfield depth chart is such that a guy thrashing the competition in the Triple A playoffs, hitting 30+ homers in a season as a still-young 22 year old, is something like the eighth player on the list, that you’re in a tremendous situation. And that argument is very much correct.

On the other hand, it seems that we’re moving toward a game where it is increasingly hard to actually turn depth into concentrated quality, as so few teams seem willing to move the star-level players they possess for quantity-based packages, even when the overall value is almost certainly equal or even greater than the star they’re giving up. In that case, one might be tempted to argue this seemingly beautiful situation is as much a corner you’re stuck in as a situation one would hope for.

The Cardinals have one of the more intriguing outfield prospects in all of baseball beating up on Triple A competition right now, trying to force his way into the major league conversation in extremely short order.

And I have literally no idea how they find room for him unless major, major moves are made.