JUPITER, Fla. (KMOV.com) — The 2020 baseball season was unusual no matter who you are, but imagine being Tyler O’Neill.
The Cardinals left fielder tied for the team lead in home runs and won his first-ever Gold Glove Award. In any other year, it would be impossible to reach such achievements without labeling your season a tremendous success.
Given the context of the shortened season, though, O’Neill enters this one with plenty left to prove. Though the Gold Glove nod rightfully highlights his adept glove work, O’Neill labored through a career-worst campaign offensively. Sporadic bursts of power landed him at seven home runs in 157 plate appearances—good enough for a share of the team-lead, sure, but his offensive profile lacked in every other department.
With similar sample sizes in each of his three big-league seasons, O’Neill’s OPS production has declined year-over-year, from a sturdy .803 in 2018, down to .723 in 2019, and off a cliff to .621 in the pandemic-influenced season last year. O’Neill hit just .173 and out-slugged teammate Yadier Molina by just one point, .360 to .359. Though he could certainly benefit from Molina’s knack for finesse hitting, O’Neill should be in a different stratosphere in the power categories.
Meeting with reporters over Zoom on Monday, O’Neill acknowledged that growth at the plate will be critical for his success in the upcoming season.
“Definitely a lot more focus on that side of the ball this year,” O’Neill said. “I know it was a down year for me in the average department, there. Still able to do some damage but obviously not the way, as much, that I would have liked and the staff would have liked. So I’ve got some stuff to prove, and I don’t have a problem with that.
"I have a lot of confidence in my ability and I’m not worried about a thing."
O’Neill enters spring camp a candidate for considerable playing time somewhere in the St. Louis outfield—John Mozeliak said this week he likely envisions left field will remain his primary position, with Dylan Carlson frequently filling Dexter Fowler’s vacancy in right—but that O’Neill didn’t draw an at-bat in last fall’s Wild Card Series loss to the Padres speaks to where the team viewed his status at the time. And in the coming season, opportunity in the Cardinals outfield won’t be doled out lightly.
The Cardinals could have as many as seven players from their 40-man roster vying for playing time in the outfield. Depending on the demand for playing time exhibited by Matt Carpenter’s bat, it’s conceivable his presence could shift presumptive second baseman Tommy Edman back to a role in the outfield at points throughout the season. There are plenty of moving parts, here; mapping out the outfield permutations is a dizzying concept.
To elevate himself into the everyday-player role that all big-leaguers tend to covet, O'Neill has been putting in the work on refining his approach offensively. He's ready to see that work pay off in his performance in 2021.
“I think I just need to continue to work on my timing,” O’Neill said. “Continue to trust my eyes to see the ball. Not think too much up there, not get too boxy and not get too mechanical. Just be a little more free-flowing. I’ve been working with Jeff (Albert) and Jobel (Jimenez), I’ve been down here for a couple weeks now, and been working my tail off all off-season on what I want to accomplish—I think the biggest thing for me was identifying what I want to accomplish. Just having a smoother rhythm up there and trusting my eyes is going to pay dividends for me.”
For O’Neill, it's clear his focus remains on his own improvement. He knows if he hits his marks in the batter’s box, the production—and the playing time that goes with it—will soon follow.
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