I’m fascinated with the idea of Tyler O’Neill playing center field for the Cardinals. It’s not easy to find fearsome, power-hitting, home-run bashing sluggers at the position, so “Bro’Neill” could give the Cardinals an edge there.

O’Neill hasn’t logged many innings in CF during his career, so the sample is slight. But given his speed and athleticism and his history of performing well defensively, there’s potential for success. Truth is, we won’t know how well O’Neill would fare in center field over a longer period of time until he plays an extensive amount of innings there. Perhaps we’ll find out more in 2023.

O’Neill won two Gold Gloves for his defensive skill in left field, but center field is more challenging. Left field is an island. Center field is a continent.

For now, I’ll offer a fair-minded look at O’Neill and Dylan Carlson in center field. And rather than bore you with too many stats, I’ll just summarize the findings.

According to the defensive metrics at FanGraphs – most of which are from Fielding Bible – here’s a general recap of each guy’s work in center field in 20022.

* Carlson has a better arm than O’Neill, and that gave Carlson an advantage in reducing a baserunner’s aggressiveness. O’Neill’s arm is above average but doesn’t match Carlson’s.

* O’Neill is faster than Carlson, has more “burst” than Carlson, gets better jumps than Carlson, and has more range than Carlson. Here’s more on their sprinting speed: O’Neill’s speed places him in the 97th percentile of MLB players. (Excellent.) Carlson is in the 71st percentile. Pretty big difference.

* Carlson saved more runs defensively in center field than O’Neill last year. But that’s to be expected simply because Carlson played 363 more innings in CF than O’Neill last year.

* We get a more revealing look by using the prorated version of Ultimate Zone Rating in center field for 2022. And O’Neill posted a UZR/150 of 8.2 compared to Carlson’s 3.5.

A few other things:

Lars Nootbaar could be part of the plans in center field. As I wrote yesterday, the Cardinals have three outfielders capable of playing at all three outfield positions. (O’Neill, Carlson and Nootbaar.) But Nootbaar’s tremendous arm strength makes him more of a natural fit in right field. The three are interchangeable, and manager Oli Marmol doesn’t hesitate to move guys around. So don’t get hung up on set positions.

Both O’Neill and Carlson have dealt with injuries in their careers, but it’s been a larger issue for O’Neill. Here’s the count on days missed because of injuries over the past two seasons: O’Neill 87, Carlson 40. O’Neill’s issues are mainly related to his lower half: strained hamstrings, a strained groin muscle, etc. I bring this up because O’Neill would have to do more sprinting and jumping in center field. There would be more explosive range of motion, and more torque, and that would increase the injury risk. This past season he focused on improving his flexibility, and that should help cut down his time on the IL. But we don’t know that for sure.

We should acknowledge the offensive component in this equation. Last season the Cardinals had 17 homers, 68 RBI, a .392 slugging percentage and a .703 OPS from the center-field spot. Their center fielders performed only two percent above league average offensively per wRC+. Needless to say, the Cards need a more impact offensively from their center-field group.

If consistently healthy, O’Neill can provide that boost. In 2021, only three MLB center fielders hit 20 or more homers, and six slugged .500 or higher. In 2022, four centerfielders banged 20+ home runs, and four slugged above .500. That’s with a minimum 250 plate appearances as a center fielder and does not include stats that a player – Aaron Judge, for instance – compiled while playing at other defensive positions or serving as a DH.

Despite appearing in only 96 games last season, O’Neill still ranked tied for 10th among all outfielders with 48 home runs over 2021 and 2022 and was 17th among outfielders in slugging percentage (.500.) No MLB center fielder hit more than 47 home runs over the past two seasons combined. And only seven slugged .500 or higher. So a healthy and productive O’Neill can supply elite-level offense in center. On the other hand, O’Neill has to prove he can stay healthy. If he can, the offense will be there.

When No. 1 prospect Jordan Walker joins the major-league cast, the most likely scenario has Walker in left, O’Neill in center, and Nootbaar in right. I’m not counting Carlson out. There will be plenty of outfield work to go around. Last season seven Cardinals made at least 139 plate appearances as outfielders, and five had 230 or more PA. As I wrote Tuesday, Carlson will have considerable control over his playing time. The better he hits – especially vs. RH pitching – the more he’ll play.

On that latter point, what about O’Neill vs. right-handers? The RH bat has been above average against right-handed pitching in only two of his five seasons – 2018, and 2021. But O’Neill’s career stats against righties include a .468 slugging percentage and .779 OPS. Overall, O’Neill has been 12 percent above average (per wRC+) when facing RH pitching.

Last season Albert Pujols made 240 plate appearances at DH, the most by any Cardinal. Add in Corey Dickerson’s time at DH last year, and that’s about 300 plate appearances between the two. In 2023, those 300 plate appearances will be redistributed to other Redbirds. A percentage of those DH at–bats will be taken by outfielders.

I don’t believe that O’Neill needs motivation. Last season’s disappointment was more than enough to fire him up. O’Neill can become a free agent before the 2025 season. His market value would skyrocket if he can enter free agency as an above-average center fielder 30-homer power.

Thanks for reading …


Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or through the 590 app.

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Listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast on the Cardinals, featuring Will Leitch and B. Miklasz. It’s available on your preferred podcast platform or through 590thefan.com and the 590 app. Follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link.

All stats used in this column were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant and Spotrac.

Bernie Miklasz
Bernie Miklasz

For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.

While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.

Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.