TORONTO — Tyler O’Neill looked down and was shaking his head in agreement before the question was even finished.
Does the St. Louis Cardinals left-fielder feel there’s an opportunity for a full-time role in his team’s outfield this season?
“Yep, yeah, absolutely,” he said at the recent Baseball Canada banquet. “You know, we’re all teammates, we’re all wearing the same uniform but in the end, we want to help the team win in the most capacity that we can.
“I believe that there’s been doors opened up for me and I’m completely able and willing to step up in that role and it’s going to be a fun year in my regard and so we’ll see what happens.”
To this point, O’Neill has struggled to maintain an everyday role with the Cardinals despite his promise at the plate. Injuries and a stacked St. Louis outfield have impacted the 24-year-old’s playing time.
Now opportunity exists for the Burnaby, B.C., native, as fellow outfielders Marcell Ozuna and Jose Martinez have moved on to Atlanta and Tampa Bay, respectively.
“Can’t really ask for a better opportunity than what’s been given to me at this point,” O’Neill said.
In 60 games last season, O’Neill hit .262 with five home runs and 16 RBI. His strikeout rate is a concern — he whiffed 53 times in 141 at-bats or nearly 38 per cent of his plate appearances.
But there is reason to think he can translate previous power at the plate to the big league level. In 175 at-bats between double-A and triple-A in 2019, O’Neill had 13 home runs with a .509 slugging percentage. The year before that at triple-A, he had a .693 slugging percentage with 26 homers in 238 plate appearances.
His speed is also impressive, with a max sprint speed of 29.9 feet per second, which ranks in the 99th percentile in baseball, per Baseball Savant.
Stubby Clapp, the Cardinals’ first base coach from Windsor, Ont., said in a recent phone interview that O’Neill can produce if given regular playing time.
“If he gets an opportunity in spring training, he just needs to take care of his business there and just continue to work hard and show that he’s making progressions in the areas that he needs to and just produce,” Clapp said.
The areas of progression Clapp is referring to involve O’Neill using all of his tools. Clapp said when O’Neill was first acquired from the Seattle Mariners in July 2017, he wasn’t running enough and was more concerned about his hitting.
“He’s done a nice job at figuring out how to do that (using legs),” said Clapp, who managed O’Neill in triple-A in 2017 and ’18 before getting a promotion to MLB. “Granted the injuries have slowed him down, but he’s had an open mind about how to expand his game and he’s been a lot of fun.”
A pair of injuries landed O’Neill on the injured list twice in 2019 while another injury landed him on the seven-day injured list while in triple-A.
O’Neill got hot just after the 2019 all-star break, hitting .301 in July with four home runs and 12 RBI and at one point had a seven-game hitting streak. But a left wrist strain sidelined him again at the start of August and prevented him from getting much playing time when he returned in September as the Cardinals geared up for a playoff run.
O’Neill said he’s resorted to a lot more stretching and yoga over the winter to try and prevent injuries this season. He’s eased back on heavy lifting — he’s known for his chiselled frame — but not too much: “I would never want to lose what’s my bread and butter.”
He feels as though the yoga is getting him looser and limber and is hopeful it works to get him playing daily.
“For me, personally, it’s a lot easier to play this game when you’re playing every day,” he said. “Seeing how starting pitchers attack you, seeing how teams attack you in a specific series, seeing how they match up differently when you meet them in two weeks. There’s a lot that goes in this game, it’s really like a grown man’s chess game.
“I feel like I can play it very well, I’m very skilled in what I do and given a full years of work, I feel like I can do some damage.”