It’s been a peaceful time for Cardinals outfielder Tyler O’Neill since he reappeared from the Injured List to play ball on July 20.
He’s healthy (cross fingers), seems happy, and has Bro-worthy power numbers. After their infamous early-season hubbub created when temperamental manager Oli Marmol criticized O’Neill’s lack of hustle, the relationship is harmonious.
After a miserable start to the season, O’Neill has tracked well over his 110 plate appearances since returning from the IL. Since July 20 he has a .364 OBP and .484 slug for a .848 OPS. This comeback phase includes seven doubles, five homers and a wRC+ that makes him 35 percent above league average offensively.
His plate discipline has sharpened dramatically. Before going to the IL in early May, O’Neill had an inflated 34.3 percent strikeout rate and walked 7% of the time. Since rejoining the lineup, he’s struck out only 19 percent of the time with a walk percentage of 15.5. O’Neill has a poor batting average in August but otherwise has slugged .509 with five homers, three doubles and 10 RBI in 52 at-bats. He’s booming again.
So what does this mean? Is O’Neill in the process of increasing his trade value in time for the offseason? Perhaps … but only to an extent.
— First of all, he must stay healthy to give potential trade parties a more secure feeling about his viability. That said, his injury history is an obvious concern, and how much will it change if he avoids the IL for the remainder of the season? O’Neill is a risky proposition. Why would a team give the Cardinals a meaningful return in a trade for a guy that’s never topped 96 games played except for 2021?
— Second, some of O’Neill’s indicators will draw closer scrutiny. Compared to his 2021 showing, O’Neill percentages are down in average exit velocity, hard-hit rate, barrel rate, sweet-spot contact and sprint speed. The 2023 rates are fine but don’t match his peak-season level in 2021. That includes his outfield defense. And isn’t that what teams are wondering about – the odds of O’Neill performing like it’s 2021 all over again?
O’Neill had a career-best 52.2 hard-hit percentage in 2023. That’s down to 43% in 2023 – and has actually decreased a bit since he returned from the IL. In 2021 O’Neill had a .570 slugging percentage on four-seam fastballs, and a .550 slug on sliders. This season he has a .421 slug on four-seamers and a .189 slug vs. sliders. And while his sprint speed is still well above average (83rd percentile) in 2023, it’s not close to his 98th percentile sprint speed in 2021.
With O’Neill, we never know what’s about to happen. But he’s been around these parts since 2018, so we do know a few things.
1. Injuries are inevitable. He missed 77 days earlier this season with lower-back discomfort. As a Cardinal O’Neill has missed 227 in-season days because of injuries. Since completing his busy and successful season in 2021, O’Neill ranks 265th among major-league position players in games played. O’Neill has appeared in more than 100 games in a season only one time in six seasons.
2. O’Neill was an absolute force in 2021. In fine fettle with robust health, O’Neill competed in 138 games and made 538 plate appearances. With no serious physical infirmities O’Neill was an electric power station that produced 34 home runs, 80 RBI, 26 doubles, a .560 slugging percentage, 15 stolen bases, and a wRC+ that translated to 44 percent above league average offensively. He won his second straight gold glove for his defensive excellence in left field. He ranked fifth among MLB outfielders with 5.8 fWAR, and received down-ballot league MVP votes.
How grand was O’Neill in 2021?
He was one of only three MLB hitters to construct a combination of 30+ home runs, 80+ RBI, a .560+ slugging percentage, a .900+ OPS, and at least stolen bases. The other two: Shohei Ohtani and Fernando Tatis Jr.
In ‘21 O’Neill was the only player in the majors to do all of that damage offensively and AND win a gold glove. (We’ll give Ohtani the edge over O’Neill in pitching prowess. And yes, that’s sarcasm.)
3. There’s a one-hit wonder aspect to O’Neill’s career. If we blot out his exciting quantum leap of 2021, here’s what T.O. has done, combined, in his other MLB five seasons and 1,042 plate appearances. This book-keeping includes his in-progress numbers for 2023:
* Batting average, .230
* Onbase percentage, .304
* Slugging percentage, .409
* OPS, .713
* A home run every 22 at-bats. In 2021, he homered every 14 at-bats.
* A combined 3.9 WAR in his five other seasons – and remember, he had 5.8 WAR in just 2021 alone.
From the start of 2018 to this point in 2023, non-pitchers have a .738 OPS – 26 points higher than O’Neill’s OPS over that time.
Unless an interested team is convinced that the 2021 version of O’Neill will be there for them in 2024, his trade value will be limited.
Yes, O’Neill could be part of a much larger trade package for a starting pitcher; that’s one way for a team that acquires O’Neill to lessen their risk. And it would give them a relatively low-risk opportunity to hit the O’Neill jackpot.
If the Cardinals front office thinks it’s being low-balled in O’Neill trade offers, will president of baseball ops John Mozeliak stay with Bro for another season?
The St. Louis front office is still haunted by giving up outfielders – Adolis Garcia, Randy Arozarena, Lane Thomas – or trading for an outfielder.
You know, like the time Mozeliak gave Miami two future No. 1 starting pitchers (Sandy Alcantara, Zac Gallen) for shoulder-damaged slugger Marcell Ozuna. In his two seasons with St. Louis (2018-2019) Ozuna averaged 26 homers and slugged .450 but his overall offense was only eight percent above league average.
O’Neill can become a free agent after 2024, and he’ll be a highly motivated 29 year-old going into next year. Any wager on O’Neill is a source of anxiety, but the Cardinals could benefit from his contract-driven inspiration in 2024. And though O’Neill’s recent form isn’t up to 2021 standards, he’s moving in the right direction.
Of course that could end – at any time – with another injury. Everything about this is tricky. Now please excuse me. I have to stop writing and look for meds because I’m getting a headache.
Thanks for reading …
I hope you have a nice (and cool) weekend …
Bernie hosts an opinionated sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. on Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. You can stream it live or access the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz
For weekly Cards talk, listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast with Will Leitch and Miklasz via 590thefan.com or through your preferred podcast platform. Follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link.
All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Fielding Bible and Baseball Prospectus unless otherwise noted.
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.