Why O’Neill competing for CF job makes sense for Cardinals

Cardinals outfielder Tyler O'Neill swings the bat during batting practice in Jupiter, Fla. in...
Cardinals outfielder Tyler O'Neill swings the bat during batting practice in Jupiter, Fla. in February 2023.(Brenden Schaeffer)
Published: Feb. 22, 2023 at 12:08 PM CST
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ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - Reports from Tuesday at Cardinals camp in Jupiter detailed two-time Gold Glove Award-winning left fielder Tyler O’Neill taking defensive reps in center field.

That was an interesting revelation considering the presence of Dylan Carlson as the incumbent at the position, but it makes sense for St. Louis to explore the viability of O’Neill in the spot for a number of reasons.

Though I called Carlson the incumbent in center, the reality is murkier than that when you think back to the end of the 2022 season. While Carlson proved himself as an impressive defender at the toughest of the outfield positions last year, his bat didn’t provide the same steady production.

From August 1 to the end of the season, Carlson mustered a mere .634 OPS, which fell in line with his season-long trends against right-handed pitching. His struggles were more pronounced against right-handed pitching, against which Carlson produced just a .633 OPS on the season.

Given that Carlson is a switch-hitter who should theoretically be immune to such drastic splits, the disparity was concerning and led to more opportunities for other players in center field late in the year. O’Neill saw 20 starts in center field over the final two months of the season.

So this isn’t necessarily a new endeavor for O’Neill and the Cardinals. It picks up where the team left off last season in terms of the potential for a timeshare in center.

Although the Cardinals are probably hoping for evidence this spring that Carlson’s struggles from the left side of the plate last season were related to the wrist injury that hampered him throughout the summer, it makes sense for St. Louis to continue exploring alternatives for what center field could look if like Carlson’s discouraging splits remain constant in 2023.

O’Neill explained to reporters in Jupiter that while he’s not angling to take anybody’s job away, he wants to demonstrate the work he’s put in over the off-season to provide versatility for the team defensively.

The flexibility to know that numerous outfielders on the roster can handle the duties of center field would be a luxury for Oliver Marmol when filling out his lineup card this season.

Lars Nootbaar, to whom Marmol had referred this winter as the only St. Louis outfielder with the certainty of an everyday spot in the lineup heading into the upcoming campaign, also drew 80.0 innings in center field last year.

For a spring camp that is being billed around the competition that it features at several positions on the roster, it only makes sense for guys like O’Neill and Nootbaar to push for opportunities in center field.

Prospects like Jordan Walker and Alec Burleson are two players that put tangible names to that competition. For both, it would likely be the strength of their offensive performances this spring that would dictate their potential for cracking the Major League lineup early in the season. But both project more as corner outfielders than they do center fielders, meaning if their bats demand their inclusion on the roster, it could necessitate more flexibility from the guys currently expected to man the corners.

That’s where flexibility for O’Neill and Nootbaar becomes paramount. Not specifically to the notion of Carlson needing to look over his shoulder, but to the idea that this outfield group is potentially as competitive at all three spots as we’ve seen in a number of years in St. Louis.

For more than three of these five outfielders to produce offensively--and throw Juan Yepez and Brendan Donovan into the periphery of this conversation, too, depending on how the battle for playing time at second base shakes out--would obviously be a good problem for the Cardinals to have. But in such a scenario, defensive versatility would be critical for each player to maximize his own chances to stay in the lineup.