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Tyler O’Neill is Running out of Time

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O’Neill has had a terrible start to the season. Now he is on the IL. He has a short window to prove himself or the Cards will likely move on without him.

St Louis Cardinals v Miami Marlins Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

Last week, Tyler O’Neill went to the IL with a groin strain. The imaging of his groin came back looking good. (Don’t make the joke… don’t make the joke…) It’s expected he won’t miss much more than the mandatory 10 days.

Despite the positive report, it was terrible timing for Tyler. O’Neill started the season with a home run in the opener and it’s been straight down from there. It’s a small sample, but his overall production is worse than last year. And last year it was horrendous.

In 2020, O’Neill had a .173/.261/.360 slash line with a .271 wOBA and a 70 wRC+. His superior defense in left field was the only thing keeping him above replacement-level production in 50 games played.

This season O’Neill is slashing .143/.172/.268. His wOBA is .201. His wRC+ is 28. Gone are the positive signs from 2020. He hasn’t drawn a walk in 8 games played. Just a few days before his injury his strikeout rate was over 50%. His defense has been up and down so far, with a 2-error day last week coupled with a handful of rangy plays.

I could be positive and say that this is just a slump. His last few plate appearances before hitting the IL looked a little better. He had that hard-hit grounder back up the middle that the Brewers misplayed into a single. Maybe that was something he could build on? Maybe?

Not now. Now he’s injured and groin problems tend to linger. If that saps a little of his speed, there goes the defensive upside and aggressiveness on the basepaths (not that he’s ever on base.) It might affect him at the plate too.

It’s a pretty bleak situation for the former top-100 prospect with worlds of obvious power potential.

Let’s rewind a few years. In 2019, the Cardinals were not willing (they were able) to give O’Neill the outfield time he needed to display his talents. He was a replacement-level player, providing a .308 wOBA and 0 fWAR in 151 inconsistent plate appearances. O’Neill struggled mightily in a pinch-hitting role. His splits improved when he had regular playing time. Part-time Tyler O’Neill was a bad player. Full-time O’Neill was a pretty good player. The Cardinals were anxious to see what would happen if they gave O’Neill regular starts and consistent at-bats.

Heading into 2020, the Cardinals expressed optimism in O’Neill. The offseason mantra was “we have to see what we have” with him (and others). COVID and the compressed season created the opportunity for that to happen for O’Neill. Of the Cardinals’ 58 games, he started 41 of them in the outfield, 2 at DH, and only PH in 2 games. He produced the terrible offensive line that I painfully cite above.

It is possible to dismiss his poor production in 2020, if you’re hunting for positives. There are sample size concerns, just as there were in ’18 and ’19. The playing environment around COVID was also oppressive. Offense for Cardinals batters was down almost across the board compared to their individual projections. The wear and tear of travel, frequent double-headers, and no off days wore on the entire club.

Sill, this winter the language from the front office had changed. Mozeliak was no longer repeating the need to see what they had in these young players. Instead, they talked about maximizing the strengths of the players. “Platoon” became the word of the winter. With switch hitters in Dylan Carlson and Dexter Fowler, it was easy to see where that “platoon” centered. Righties Bader, O’Neill, and Thomas would have to fight for time with the more versatile switch hitters and the potentially option-less lefty Justin Williams.

Fowler’s trade helped relieve the outfield playing time pressure, but it was still no vote of confidence in O’Neill. Instead, the move ensured that prospect Dylan Carlson had no obstacles in his way to 450-600 plate appearances, primarily in right field (Fowler’s position.) Bader was down to one challenger — Thomas. O’Neill still had to fend off Thomas, the lefty Williams and perhaps even Austin Dean, if he could hit his way into a roster spot in the spring.

The circumstances of spring completely cleared O’Neill’s path. Bader came down with an injury that should sideline him until June. Carlson was moved to center. Thomas couldn’t break camp with the club. Williams was the presumptive starter in right, with Tommy Edman likely to steal time from him.

O’Neill’s window as a full-time starter for the entirety of the 2021 season seemed wide open. He just had to take the opportunity and run with it.

Eight game in and he’s produced a wRC+ below 30 and is back on the IL.

The club’s patience has to be wearing thin, particularly in light of the challenges the club has had in the outfield. The “platoon” plan has turned into “panic” or perhaps just “pain” and it honestly feels like Shildt is throwing darts at the wall to make out the lineup.

That would probably be as good a strategy as any considering the options available.

Heading into Tuesday’s game (I am sure it changed after their offensive explosion against the Nats) the Cardinals were 23rd in the league in wOBA among outfielders at .294. Their collective wRC+ was 88. As a group, the Cardinals outfield were hitting about as well as an acceptable backup middle infielder. Their collective slash line was .218/.291/.380, and most of that slugging percentage comes from Dylan Carlson’s three home runs.

Believe it or not, that production level is an improvement over what the outfielders were showing just a few days ago. Austin Dean had a good weekend. Justin Williams seems to be coming around if you look at exit velocity and not at actual production.

All of that is bad news for O’Neill as it is forcing the Cardinals to get a good look at their alternatives and their deficits.

Before the season started John Mozeliak stated that “ideally” Matt Carpenter would win the starting second base position. That scenario would drive fans crazy but it would open Edman up to backup shortstop and play some outfield. (I can feel VEB’s collective cringe as I write that.)

I can argue with Mo about how NOT ideal that situation is all day. However, there is nothing ideal about the outfield alignment either. When the non-Dylan Carlson outfielders are showing replacement level upside, maybe NOT ideal is still the best option.

With Carlson locked into a position regardless and Bader likely to head back to center within the next 3-4 weeks, O’Neill’s “consistent starter” opportunities will shrink if Edman is still roaming the outfield. They’ll disappear entirely if Williams’ exit velocity data finally wakes up the BABIP gods and things start dropping for him over the next week.

Then there is trade season to consider. The Cardinals’ collectively poor outfield production and frantic shifting at all three positions point to the need to upgrade a corner outfield spot sometime between the All-Star break and the trade deadline. The Cardinals kicked the tires on a few outfielders over the winter. That all seemed half-hearted. The beat writers made it clear that the team was interested in adding another hitter if the DH returned. If it didn’t, they were happy keeping payroll as low as they could.

With fans in the stands and the possibility that the percentage of seats available could increase as the summer progresses, the Cardinals might be willing to spend a little to rent a solid player at a corner outfield spot in July.

The start of the minor league season could help as well, as the club gets a better look at where prospects are in their development after having a competition-free 2020. I don’t feel like the Cardinals have a wealth of trade options. I would not want them to give up Thompson, Liberatore, or Gorman in a deal. Oviedo seems likely to find his way into a major league role by that time; considering the club’s pitching issues, it seems like a mistake to include him in a deal. Maybe Angel Rondon could be attractive to some, along with some of the less celebrated hitters. I don’t think a rental league average-ish corner outfielder would cost all that much in trade, especially if the Cardinals were willing to take salary in a deal.

Start adding it up and O’Neill probably has until Harrison Bader comes back – 2-4 weeks – to convince the Cardinals that he can be a starter for 2021. Otherwise, the club will move on with him in a part-time role that he seems ill-suited for. He’s going to spend at least a week of that span on the IL. Then he’ll have to play while recovering from injury.

Add it up and it’s clear time is running out for Tyler O’Neill. This is starting to feel like the end of this little experiment. It kind of sucks because TON was a player I wanted to like. At the same time, I (and all Cardinals fans) are desperate for something resembling consistency and solid production from an outfield that has been in flux for half a decade.