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The case for Tyler O’Neill as a starting outfielder

The Cardinals are going to need someone to step up in the corner outfield. Here’s why that someone could very well be O’Neill.

St Louis Cardinals v Arizona Diamondbacks
The Pillar of Meat™ prepares to absolutely demolish a baseball (colorized, circa 2019)
Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

Tyler O’Neill. The prospect once upon a time acquired for Marco Gonzales. The Canadian dude who belted one of the more memorable walk-off homers in recent Cardinals history. The man dubbed the “Pillar of Meat.

As a minor-leaguer, the 24-year-old hit almost everywhere he went, posting a wRC+ of at least 125 in each of his first four professional seasons thanks in large parts to his power. Even in 2017, a down year that also saw the lowest BABIP of his career, he still managed to crank out 31 home runs en route to an above-average performance at the plate. Then in 2018, he tore the cover off the baseball before getting called up to St. Louis, where he also impressed by slugging .500 with a 116 wRC+.

2019, however, was arguably the worst year of his career. O’Neill battled the injury bug, most notably missing about a month after sustaining a left wrist strain. His 94 wRC+ between Memphis and St. Louis stands out as the only below-average mark of his young career.

That isn’t to say last year didn’t have its silver linings. O’Neill’s walk-to-strikeout ratio improved by 58%, his contact rate ticked up on pitches both inside and out of the strike zone at the MLB level, and he still boasted an elite hard-hit contact rate when bat did meet ball. Moreover, his Statcast sprint speed placed him in the 99th percentile of all players while his defensive metrics, such as Statcast’s outs above average, in (an admittedly small sample size) grade him as average to slightly-above average in the field.

My point being: if O’Neill can turn in serviceable production with his glove and on the basepaths, it lowers the threshold for what the Cardinals need from him with a bat in his hand. If he can climb back up even to a dead average 100 wRC+ and receive regular playing time, the path to 2020 being a 2-2.5 win campaign for O’Neill becomes immensely easier. If his “barrel rate” leads to an even greater resurgence offensively, his upside only rises in proportion.

Looking at the corner outfield outlook for the 2020 Cardinals, Dylan Carlson is likely to remain in Memphis for at least part of this season. We can say with decent confidence that Dexter Fowler, soon to be 34, will cost St. Louis more runs defensively than O’Neill, giving the edge to the latter if we buy that both are projected to create roughly the same amount of value at the plate. Oh yeah, and Marcell Ozuna departed in free agency.

The Cardinals have at-bats to go around in the outfield. Harrison Bader will likely receive the lion’s share in centerfield. After that O’Neill, Carlson, Fowler, Lane Thomas, and possibly–as I wrote earlier this offseason–Tommy Edman (if Matt Carpenter returns to form as the everyday third baseman) will be vying for a finite amount of playing time.

A good number of Cardinals fans, myself included, having been calling for the “young guys” to get a more substantial look in 2020. They likely will out of necessity, and O’Neill should–and I would imagine will–be at the top of that list come Spring Training.