The Cardinals finally gave up on Tyler O’Neill, trading the muscular but fragile outfielder to the Red Sox for two indeterminate pitchers in a ho-hum deal that confirmed his minimal trade value.
The move also reaffirmed O’Neill’s status as one of the most disappointing players employed by the Cardinals during chairman Bill DeWitt Jr.’s 28 season of franchise ownership.
I say that for several reasons:
1. Seattle won the trade that sent O’Neill to St. Louis for starting pitcher Marco Gonzales on July 21, 2017. OK, in one sense the transaction was a push, with both players compiling roughly the same amount of FanGraphs WAR for their new teams. But that’s misleading. While Gonzales fizzled out late in the latter stages of his stay with the Mariners, he was the more consistent and impactful performer.
Over his first two seasons with the Mariners, Gonzales accrued 7.1 Wins Above Replacement, a figure that ranked 22nd among major-league starters. And in his third season – the pandemic-shortened 2020 – Gonzales ranked 14th among all MLB starting pitchers with an impressive 1.9 WAR. Over the three-season stretch Gonzales had the same WAR (9.0) as Walker Buehler and more than Luis Castillo, Shane Bieber, Blake Snell, Sonny Gray, Lucas Giolito, Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas, Jake Odorizzi and Rick Porcello. (Among many others.)
2. For all of the hype and fantasies of a new St. Louis slugging machine, O’Neill had one prominent season as a Cardinal. In 2021 he powered up for 34 homers, a .560 slugging percentage, 15 stolen bases and a .912 OPS. He also won a Gold Glove for a second consecutive season and received NL MVP votes.
O’Neill was 26 years old in 2021 and seemingly had reached his full potential. He created expectations for exciting times ahead. But the ‘21 season was just another tease. In his final two seasons for the Redbirds O’Neill batted .229 with a substandard .397 slug. And after homering every 14 at-bats in 2021, O’Neill went deep every 25 at-bats across 2022-2023.
The sum of T.O.’s other five seasons as a Cardinal were mostly unfulfilling and frustrating. Other than the big show that O’Neill put on in 2021, he batted .228 with a .301 onbase percentage, .407 slugging percentage and a .708 OPS. His strikeout rate in the five seasons was 32.8 percent. O’Neill can become a free agent after the 2024 season and has every motivation to generate impressive power numbers for the Red Sox. Boston took a sensible low-risk gamble here, hoping the enigmatic O’Neill will plug in after flopping in St. Louis. But even if O’Neill decides he wants to play again and cranks 30 home runs in 2024, that won’t mean the Cardinal front office messed up by trading him. It was time to move on.
2a. Another problem with O’Neill: he’d fallen off in his performance against right-handed pitching. In 479 plate appearances vs. righties over the last two seasons O’Neill batted .223 with a .294 onbase percentage, .383 slug and .678 OPS. Based on wRC+ he was 10 percent below league average vs. RH pitchers over that time. And that’s a problem because the Cardinals face RHP in 75 percent of their plate appearances.
3. O’Neill was out of action with a sequence of physical breakdowns. As a Cardinal he missed 242 in-season days with injuries. The problem became extreme over his final two seasons. In 2022 and 2023 (combined), O’Neill missed 155 in-season days with this list of injuries: foot, back, hamstring (twice) and shoulder. The Cardinals paid O’Neill $3.6 million while he was sidelined and unable to play over the two injury-damaged seasons. Teammates grew increasingly bewildered by the frequency of O’Neill’s maladies and frustrated by his absences. Does he really love baseball? Does he really want to play baseball? It’s Boston’s turn to solve the mystery inside his head.
4. By continuing to ride with O’Neill and others, the Cardinals gave up on other outfielders and suffered significant consequences. Future All-Stars Randy Arozarena and Adolis Garcia never received anything close to a meaningful opportunity to play in St. Louis, and O’Neill was part of the reason for that. The Cardinals also moved on from Tommy Pham, who has helped three other teams make the playoffs since being traded at the deadline in 2018. And after the Cardinals traded Randal Grichuk to Toronto for a reliever (Dominic Leone) who had a 5.15 ERA for them in 64.2 innings, “Grich” slugged .477 and averaged 23 homers in his first three seasons with the Blue Jays.
From 2018 through 2023, the three outfielders with the most playing time were Harrison Bader, O’Neill and Dylan Carlson. Bader was traded at the deadline in 2022, O’Neill’s time in St. Louis has closed, and the Cardinals are still holding onto the hope of Carlson becoming something more than just an average player. Carlson is tentatively scheduled to be their fourth outfielder in 2024.
O’Neill had 9.5 WAR during his years with the Cardinals. But 5.5 WAR came in one season (2021), which means O’Neill had only 4.0 WAR (combined) in his other five seasons. Not much impact.
5. In choosing to build around O’Neill, Bader and Carlson the Cardinals declined (offensively) at the outfield position. Since the start of the 2018 season STL has ranked 20th in OPS and 21st in slugging and RBI among the 30 MLB outfield groups. And that’s hardly a surprise; Bader, O’Neill and Carlson collectively missed 474 in-season days due to injuries as members of the Cardinals.
During Matt Holliday’s time as the outfield anchor (2009-2016), the STL outfield cast was tied for first among MLB outfield groups in park-and-league adjusted runs created (wRC+), ranked first in onbase percentage and RBI, and were third in slugging and OPS. Per wRC+, St. Louis outfielders were 17 percent above league average offensively during the Holliday years – but have been only two percent above average since the start of 2017. St. Louis management has struggled to put a good outfield together. Perhaps that will change with Jordan Walker and Lars Nootbaar as catalysts.
THE CARDS ADD MORE PITCHING DEPTH
With the O’Neill trade, president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and cabinet stockpiled more pitching, continuing an objective that began at the 2023 trade deadline. Let’s take a closer look.
— Coming over from the Red Sox are righthanders Nick Robertson and Victor Santos. Santos is a strike thrower who missed all of 2023 after undergoing elbow surgery. But he’s pitched well in winter-league ball in recent weeks.
— Robertson has a chance to augment a St. Louis bullpen that needs muscle. He was added to the STL 40-man roster, and the Cardinals like his swing-and-miss stuff – especially after Robertson added a sweeper to his pitch arsenal late in the season. Robertson had six effective performances – and one bad appearance – in coming out of the bullpen for Boston in September. In his six good outings, Robertson allowed three hits (no runs) in six innings, striking out 32 percent of batters faced. Before being dealt to Boston last summer for utility-player asset Kike Hernandez, Robertson had a 26% strikeout rate in 10 and ⅓ innings for the Dodgers.
— Before that, Robertson struck out 42 hitters in 28.1 innings for LA’s Triple A affiliate in Oklahoma City. Robertson has averaged 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings in the minors. He’s an obvious candidate for a St. Louis bullpen spot in 2024. As Keith Law wrote at The Athletic: “He posted very high strikeout rates in the minors and his overall whiff rate in the majors was solid, so I could see a path where he becomes an above-average reliever if the changeup becomes more consistent.”
— The Cardinals also chose another right-handed Boston pitching prospect, Ryan Fernandez, in the recent Rule 5 Draft. He averaged 11 strikeouts per nine innings at three different levels of the Red Sox system.
— Eric Longenhagen – the astute prospects analyst at FanGraphs – wrote glowing reviews of Fernandez in advance of the draft:
“Fernandez is a single-inning relief prospect with some of the best stuff of anyone available in this year’s Rule 5 draft. His four-seamer sits 94-96 mph and touches 97. To call his cutter a secondary would be misleading, as it surpassed his fastball usage at Triple-A, accounting for 48% of the pitches he threw at that level and inducing a 47% chase rate. His use of his gyroscopic slider dipped in 2023, but when he did throw it, it earned him a combined 63% whiffs (73% at Triple-A), and that kind of bat-missing ability is, ironically, nothing to shake a stick at. His strike-throwing ability makes him very likely to stick on St. Louis’ roster and contribute in a middle-inning capacity. This was the first relief-only pitcher to come off the board in the draft, and is the one we feel most confident will have a good 2024.”
— The additions became a part of the STL initiative to enlarge the organization’s supply of young, developmental pitching.
— Previously the Cardinals traded pitchers Jordan Montgomery, Chris Stratton, Jordan Hicks and Jack Flaherty (plus infielder Paul DeJong) for a return of six developing arms: Tekoah Roby, Sem Robberse, Adam Kloffenstein, Drew Rom, Zack Showalter and Matt Svanson. Roby – a potential mid-rotation MLB starter – is the most exciting prospect in that group.
— The haul also included lefty reliever John King who came over from Texas. He doesn’t have strikeout stuff, but King coaxed a 64 percent ground-ball rate for the Rangers and Cards in 2023. King crafted a 1.45 ERA in 20 relief appearances for St. Louis after the trade.
You just never know about the eventual fate of pitching prospects, but I appreciate how Mozeliak and staff flooded the zone to replenish a system shortage.
— As for the latest deal, Law approved of the O’Neill trade. “The return for St. Louis seems more than fair for a player they truly didn’t need, especially since his value has to be at its nadir,” Law wrote.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie hosts an opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. Stream it live or access the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
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All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Fielding Bible. Baseball Prospectus, Bill James Online or Sports Info Solutions unless otherwise noted.
For the last 36 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. A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, 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.