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Birdos in Brief: Why the Cardinals Should Keep Tyler O’Neill

The title pretty much says it all.

St. Louis Cardinals v Atlanta Braves Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Good morning, Viva El Birdos! I’m down at the river for my annual trout fishing trip. But it’s 38 degrees outside right now and I’m a complete sissy. So, you have me until the temp hits 45.

Instead of catching stocked rainbow trout and freezing off my typing fingers, I’m going to revive an old series started by some long-forgotten writer. Birdos in Brief!

That’s Birdos in Brief. Not Birdos in Briefs, which is a totally different kind of post.

Today, I want to react a little to some of the comments I heard both here and on Twitter (X) about my “No More Half Measures” article from Saturday. The response was very positive. Thanks for that! I’m pretty serious about the Cardinals contending again next season and it’s encouraging to hear those thoughts echoed by many of you.

That doesn’t mean you all agreed with everything I said. The biggest area of discussion I’m seeing concerns Tyler O’Neill, and, correspondingly, Lars Nootbaar and Tommy Edman. That’s coming from some of you. It’s also coming more indirectly from the writers at the Post Dispatch who are reporting on the conversations and discussions happening within the front office.

Here are a few of the talking points I’m hearing:

“Tyler O’Neill can’t stay healthy and isn’t reliable.”

“Lars Nootbaar isn’t a true center fielder.”

“Tommy Edman would be the team’s best defensive center fielder.”

I don’t list those because I disagree with them. I think they’re all 100% accurate. What I disagree with is the conclusion that fans, and presumably the ball club, are coming to concerning those points: Tyler O’Neill is an odd man out and needs to go.

Now, “go” can mean two different things. It could mean that the club non-tenders him, making him a free agent. Tyler O’Neill is projected to make $5.5M next year in arbitration as a third-year arbitration-eligible player. That’s a relative bargain for a player who has a 2.4 fWAR in ZiPS’ 3-year projections. But $5.5M saved is $5.5M that could go toward an impact starter. I don’t expect the Cards to do this.

Go could also mean the team trades O’Neill. Selling on O’Neill would be selling low, but they’ll likely find a taker for him. There’s more than one team that would take on $5.5M in salary to get $14.8M in projected production. The club wants 2 bullpen arms to go along with their three starters, and they could probably get a solid reliever in a trade for O’Neill.

If you return to the talking points above, gaining $5.5M in salary relief or a reliever for a player who can’t stay healthy and isn’t reliable seems like a pretty good deal. Until you start to consider the ripple effect that O’Neill’s absence has on the roster.

Here’s the crux of my position: The Cardinals need three true starting-caliber outfielders on the roster.

Why? Look no further than what we saw this season. Depth matters. It REALLY matters. Over 162 games, the Cardinals are likely to stretch the limits of their roster depth. On the infield and the outfield. Making argument for keeping O’Neill is less about O’Neill and more about what his presence (or another starting-caliber outfield) does for other key players.

Let’s talk about Tommy Edman. No matter what the club says about Edman and center, he will be the primary backup shortstop. He has to be. They have no one else.

The hopeful starter at SS is a very young and raw player who I like very much. Masyn Winn, though, had a 29 wRC+ and a -3 OAA in his first look at the majors. He’ll improve but he needs patience. The Cardinals should treat him the same as they have other talented rookies. Edman, Bader, Walker, Gorman, and DeJong all got between 300-475 in their first season.

If we plan on Winn getting 400+/- PAs, that means Tommy Edman will get 200-250 PAs, about 33% of the games, playing SS not CF. Considering his platoon splits, days off, and other injury issues, that could easily climb toward 50% of the games where Edman is not the CF’er.

if your starting center fielder is likely to be playing somewhere else for up to half your games, he isn’t your starting center fielder. He’s your utility player.

Noot can slide over for those games, but then someone else has to slide into the lineup. Who do you want that to be?

Maybe your answer is Carlson? Carlson fits my “three true starting-caliber outfielders” narrative, but keeping him hurts my plans for the rotation. The Cardinals need to acquire one of their “better than Miles Mikolas” starters through trade and Carlson is the most expendable player who could fetch such a player. DC’s trade value, despite being at an all-time low, is significantly higher than O’Neill’s. In the right package, Carlson’s 3 full seasons of control and 2-4 fWAR upside could net the Cardinals a reasonably priced SP with a 2-4 fWAR projection and 1-2 years of control. It would take an attractive sweetener, like a Graceffo, Liberatore, or Hjerpe, but they would get to keep Gorman and Donovan.

If you trade Carlson to get a starter and O’Neill to get a reliever, it doesn’t change the fact that Edman won’t play CF everyday and someone will need to cover at least half a season of OF innings while also covering for Noot and Walker.

Most of you will point to Donovan. Well, Donovan is a negative defender in both corners. Playing half his games in LF/RF would cut pretty deeply into his 2.5 fWAR projection just because of the positional adjustment. And there’s other depth issues to consider that he will have to cover for since Edman is in CF/SS. Donovan has been able to spend most of his time in the infield in his career because the playing time has been there for him to do so.

That gets us down to Burleson. His -7 OAA is a “worst-fielder-in-baseball-not-named-Kyle-Schwarber” kind of pace. And unlike Walker, he’s been playing the outfield in the minors, so this really might be as good as it gets for him. Burly’s bat will improve, but his best role is at DH. I don’t think he should play the outfield again.

Ultimately, my point is this: the Cardinals could probably make things work with Edman and Donovan and Burly in the outfield. Or, by just not moving O’Neill for a light return, they could retain a very deep and versatile set of position players with good offensive production thirteen men deep.

My suggestion for you: stop thinking of Tyler O’Neill as an everyday starter who has to have a guaranteed role. The Cardinals don’t have to expect 600 PAs out of him. They do need 450 PAs out of a 3rd or 4th outfielder. Having one with power and Gold Glove defense is just another plus in his favor. His presence doesn’t hinder Edman and Donovan. It makes them free as a fish to swim wherever the current goes. The Cardinals will need their versatility.

This didn’t end up being very brief. But it’s warmed up now. So, back to the river I go. Discuss away!