Bernie: Tyler O’Neill Can Be the Cardinals’ Left Fielder. But Can He Stay Healthy?

With Marcell Ozuna joining the Braves on a one-year deal, the Cardinals have a vacancy in left left field. Who will fill the void? Well, nothing must be decided today. And there’s no reason to make grandiose predictions to win some sort of hot-take contest. But as we move along and approach spring training, I’ll be utilizing this space to take a brief look at some of the candidates.

Having said that, I’m intrigued by Tyler O’Neill’s capability. How would the muscle man handle a more extensive, or even full-time, starting opportunity?

Two answers:

A) When healthy, Bro-Neill was at his best when he played regularly at Triple A Memphis. It’s the only possible way he can sharpen plate discipline. And he did just that, cutting his strikeout rate through his frequent at-bats. O’Neill’s strikeout frequency dropped to 24.9 percent at Memphis in 2018, down from the 30% level across multiple seasons as a prospect in Seattle’s system.

B) O’Neill received the bulk of the playing time in LF last season when Ozuna was on the injured list  from June 27 through Aug. 2. In 96 plate appearances, O’Neill batted .289 with a .333 OBP and .456 slugging percentage. His strikeout rate, while still on the high side (26%) wasn’t horrendous.

In 2019 MLB non-pitchers collectively struck out in 22.4 percent of their PA. In the context of the modern game, O’Neill’s K rate wasn’t excessive. O’Neill had four homers, three doubles and 12 RBIs. For the season, he was a plus-1 fielder (defensive runs saved) in 235 innings in left.

Of course, O’Neill has repeatedly been set back by injuries. He can’t win the big share of the playing time if he’s living in the trainer’s room, or residing on the IL. O’Neill’s overall strikeout rate was poor for the Cardinals last season (35%) and he whiffed on 30.7 percent of his PA at Memphis in ‘19.

There was a factor in the strikeout inflation: O’Neill had only 341 combined PA in 2019 in the majors and minors. His goal for consistency was interrupted and damaged by too many physical breakdowns. This can’t happen going forward.

When given an opportunity for regular at-bats as a left fielder during Ozuna’s convalescence last summer, O’Neill posted a 108 wRC+ … which means he was eight percent above league average. As STL’s regular left fielder in 2019, Ozuna had a 110 wRC+. O’Neill essentially matched that — but with a substantially smaller sample size.

Yes, the power and potential are there. In only 293 big-league career plate appearances for the Cardinals — and without the benefit of steady playing time — O’Neill has slugged .455, homered every 19 at-bats, and accrued 1.4 WAR.

That’s a healthy return on a limited opportunity …

A healthy return when O’Neill is, well, healthy.

To reach his maximum voltage, O’Neill has to play. And play. And play a lot. That’s impossible if injuries continue to leave the big man unplugged.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie