Has Tyler O'Neill gotten a real shot? Does he deserve one? Let's talk about it as Saturday afternoon remains dry outside.
There are few things that get under my skin in the world of sports talk more than the discussion of experience. Such as, this player won't start because he doesn't have experience.
What's the only way a player actually accumulates experience? Hold onto your head so it doesn't explode, but the answer is actually playing.
No matter what you actually think of the 24-year-old outfielder, we should all agree that he hasn't gotten a proper look in the Major Leagues.
With a revolving door of outfielders, both young and old, on the Cardinals, O'Neill has only received 293 plate appearances in his two seasons of service. Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk, Harrison Bader, Marcell Ozuna, Dexter Fowler, Jose Martinez, and a few others have gotten more time. Were you fascinated with either of those players? No. They all fizzled, have disappointed, or didn't blow minds in this town.
Since the Cardinals trade Piscotty (for a good cause) and Grichuk while allowing Ozuna to walk, the 2020 plan seems to be a youthful practice. Fowler will get his at-bats until he is traded or if he gets hurt, so let's not even discuss the third outfield spot.
Bader will see action, but it's been rumored that he won't be a foregone starter in the spring. Up and coming talents such as Lane Thomas and Randy Arozarena are also in contention for starts along with the #1 prospect in the organization in Dylan Carlson. And then there's O'Neill.
The curious case of Tyler O'Neill, a guy with genuine power who strikes out a ton and offers a moderate if not great outfield, lingers throughout this situation. The running question is, can O'Neill do what Ozuna did with more than 450 at-bats? It's a good question that websites won't be able to answer due to the lack of experience in the muscle-bound Canadian.
In all honesty, Thomas should be challenging Bader for starts while Arozarena should make Fowler's seat as warm as possible, so that leaves Carlson. The 21-year-old phenom destroyed Springfield and Memphis pitching last season, but only got minimal experience in Memphis. While I am all for a Carlson launch in the spring, I doubt the team engages there. For those of you who have doubts about that, ask yourself how many rookie outfielders the Cardinals have started on opening day? Any of those kids 21 years old?
Let's come back to O'Neill. In his two seasons, he has smoked 14 home runs in less than 300 plate appearances while slashing .258/.307/.454. The power potential is there, but the 110 strikeouts and 17 walks are the issue people look at. O'Neill can play outfield better than Ozuna, but can he get enough hits and generate enough production? I think the case can be made that he can.
Has O'Neill ever gotten a shot? The best evidence there is comes from this past season. Ozuna went down with an injury in late June and O'Neill was inserted into the lineup. He made the team out of spring training, got some at-bats in April but there weren't a lot of starts in there. A professional can't be expected to carve out a definition of his worth with one start per week. O'Neill got his shot later on.
From June 29 to July 31, O'Neill slashed .286/.330/.451. He hit four home runs, hit three doubles, and struck out 28 times (29% rate). He proved he can hit along with showing the liabilities of his stroke. Expand that to an entire season and O'Neill is a good producer for a little over a half-million dollars. Why did he stop starting at the end of July? Ozuna came back, and then O'Neill got hurt on Aug. 4.
Health has been a troubling factor in O'Neill's ambition to start. It seems like every time there's a hint of an opportunity, he gets going and then injures himself. This time, it was a wrist sprain. Other times, he has pulled muscles. Staying healthy is a key for O'Neill.
If he masters the health aspect of the game, I don't think it's outside the realm of possibility for O'Neill to slash .260/.325/.450 with 25 home runs and 25 doubles with giving average defense in left field. The Cardinals could bring Carlson along slowly, mix in Thomas and Arozarena in, and finally give the biggest piece of the Marco Gonzales trade a real look.
Can they afford to do that? Do the Cardinals need more than Ozuna's production in order to ascend in 2020? If they insert O'Neill and he does his job, will that be enough -- or do they need more?
I know what you're thinking, because I am too. Can Carlson do better than O'Neill? It's not impossible, but with not one Major League at-bat, do you throw Carlson to the wolves? And there I go, walking into my own trap about experience and young players. I don't think the idea of starting the clock on Carlson should be considered. Forget it, start the thing. But if the Cardinals do put him on the active roster, he has to be a starter. No nurturing. No messing around. Play him all the time or wait.
The Cardinals' outfield practice has become mundane and boring. Their free agent moves haven't panned out. If the Ozuna trade was a success, they would have re-signed him. Their farm products haven't panned out either. Their methods are flawed, so maybe a Carlson-themed reboot is in order.
I will say giving O'Neill a shot isn't a bad idea. How much longer are you going to wait? Martinez's bat came back to Earth last year, Thomas should be in center pushing a weak-hitting Bader, and Arozarena should push Fowler. A youth movement isn't a bad idea, but the arrangement is key.
Let's play more devil's advocate. The Cardinals could sign Corey Dickerson or Nicholas Castellanos, but I don't see them doing that. Both players can hit. Dickerson's glove is better, but Castellanos is an extra-base hit machine and hit very well in the Central Division last summer with the Cubs after a trade from the Tigers. He's just 27 years old, made just under $10 million, and could be looking for at least a three-year contract.
Castellanos is arguably better than Ozuna, but I don't see the Cardinals giving a free agent outfielder more than a short term contract, so I refuse to believe or put much stock in that until I see it.
Should the Cardinals run with O'Neill in left field in 2020? I think it's a good idea if they don't want to commit to Carlson just and aren't attracted to the free-agent market? In a month-long span in 2019, O'Neill proved that he could hit and play. Why did he stop? Ozuna came back. That's why. I can handle the strikeouts as long as the hits stay close. Perhaps the hitting guru Jeff Albert could help.
The rest of the kids can play and push elsewhere. What if O'Neill finds a stick of dynamite with more than 150-200 plate appearances? If he can stay healthy, he could be what Ozuna was without the disappointment.
In a perfect world, the entire outfield is comprised of players under the age of 25. It may not have worked out with Grichuk and Piscotty, but it could with a group of players arguably more talented. For the record, O'Neill could do better than Grichuk. Book that.
No matter what happens, the Cardinals need direction in their outfield plan. Go internal or get creative externally. Just have a plan.
Tyler O'Neill should be a part of that plan, experienced or not.