St. Louis Sports | Pumping the brakes on the Tyler O’Neill hype is necessary in the spring

Mar 15, 2021; Jupiter, Florida, USA; St. Louis Cardinals left fielder Tyler O’Neill (27) bats during a spring training game between the Washington Nationals and the St. Louis Cardinals at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mary Holt-USA TODAY Sports


Confession: I really want Tyler O’Neill to smash 35 home runs, crank 30 doubles across the field, and slash .255/.325/.475 this upcoming season for the St. Louis Cardinals. Slug, strike out, slug some more. But I’d also like Christina Hendricks to show up at my door with an apple pie, and I don’t think that’s happening anytime soon. Wishing with Tyler is becoming a spring practice, and 2021 is no different–at least so far. 

He’s collecting hits, not providing the field box attendees with a stiff breeze every at-bat and is hitting baseballs a long way. It’s the bliss of exhibition at its strongest, presenting the most glorious of what-if scenarios for one of Cardinal Nation’s favorites. Fans want him to do good for the same reason they wanted Arnold Schwarzenegger to save the day: it’ll look very cool and confirm that wishes still come true from time to time. 

But in order to be the starting left fielder for the Cardinals, a team prepared to give Harrison Bader the starting job (please don’t deny it) in center-O’Neill will have to find a way to outhit Bader. Something he didn’t in 2020. 

While it’s quite easy to toss out last year’s stats, one can’t help but make an observation before tossing the games into the bonfire: Bader’s OPS was .777 and O’Neill’s was .682. In the field, the Canadian physical specimen collected a Gold Glove, but I can bet my mortgage that fans would love to trade that for more robust offense. Something better than a season where he struck out 43 times in 157 plate appearances, compared to 24 hits. Shiny defensive awards are nice and all, but they also gave one to Marcell Ozuna, who once climbed a wall in left for a ball headed for the dirt below him. 

When the boys head north and the real games start, O’Neill’s dominance subsides. It’s not drawing straws or picking on the guy, only stating facts. While he couldn’t find consistent play until last year’s troubling 58 game stretch, it’s not easy to bet on things changing suddenly. Spring training is where teams throw out their Plan A, B, and C options on the mound. Some guy who will be dangling from Double-A serves up a shot to O’Neill elicits excitement but doesn’t give off a sure thing. 

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O’Neill is just part of the Cardinals outfield hope program. They hoped Randal Grichuk and/or Stephen Piscotty would turn into Christian Yelich. They hedged bets and a few prospects on Ozuna repeating a dominant season, but that didn’t happen. Lane Thomas may be 40 years old before he gets 400 at-bats in a season from St. Louis. On a playoff-contending team, Bader is a great fourth outfielder, because if you’re going to lean on his 2020, it’s very hard to disregard his 2019 season. In a nutshell, the Cardinals have been looking for an answer out there since Oscar Taveras died tragically and Jason Heyward skipped down to the North Side — but all they’ve gotten are a few maybes. 

The real question is rather simple: Can any of the current players hit a curveball or a good slider? Can they rise above odd Gold Glove awards and contracted successful seasons? There’s no science or statistical projection to back it up. Good eggs have tried to tell us what this group of misfits-and Dylan Carlson-will be able to pull off-but little of it actually happens. 

The silver lining in O’Neill’s appeal right now is control, age and at-bats. In his three years of service, the big fella has received 450 plate appearances, which equates to less than a full season. At only 25 years old, there is still time, possibly even two seasons, to figure out if he has the goods to be an everyday outfielder with pop, or just another glove with some upside. Arbitration rounds start for O’Neill after this season, so time isn’t exactly the team’s friend. 

At some point, they need a formidable outfield. Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt aren’t miracle workers. They will need help — and I wouldn’t hedge bets on Paul DeJong or Yadier Molina suddenly turning over offensive leaves this year. The outfield has to rise up, and that can’t fall all on the gifted but raw Carlson. He needs time to properly develop and mold into stud mode, and the Arenado acquisition allows that. 

But what about Tyler? He slugs in the spring, but will he ever slug in the summer? There are rumors of a swing adjustment, but I’d assume pitchers are making adjustments on the fly as well. Can O’Neill adjust to those adjustments? Until he shows the results that promise can’t always produce, I will remain seated on his work this month and the projections. A lot of guys can slug .500 in nine spring games. It’s the ones who do that for four to six months of the year who get paid and make their General managers sleep easier at night. 

It’s about time one of John Mozeliak prized outfield commodities actually turned into a real threat. Can one of these guys turn into somebody that the league fears? Maybe it’s Tyler O’Neill, but I have my doubts. Ones that are clearly visible on any baseball website. 

Prove me wrong, Mr. O’Neill.