ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) — Ever since the Cardinals moved capable lefty starter Marco Gonzales to the Mariners for the tantalizing power bat of Tyler O'Neill in July 2017, the team has patiently waited for the athletic outfielder to realize his potential in the big leagues.
O'Neill, a former top 100 prospect, has certainly shown flashes over his years in St. Louis. During the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, he found his footing on the defensive side of the ball when he captured his first Glove Glove Award in left field. But as scrutiny has increased in recent years over the revolving door-nature of their outfield, the Cardinals entered this season counting on O'Neill to conclude his development phase and establish himself as a regular contributor on offense. Because, well, St. Louis could really use a win when it comes to the timely development of their outfielders.
Randy Arozarena is a lightning-rod name that ruffles the feathers of Cardinals fans as they watch him turn in game-breaking highlights on a regular basis. The Redbirds had the Rays' budding superstar right under their nose, but sent him to Tampa for Matthew Liberatore in January 2020.
The touted left-handed pitching prospect is certainly expected to make an impact—coming soon to a St. Louis starting rotation near you—but the waiting can be the hardest part when the player they gave away would fill a pressing need for the Cardinals' current championship aspirations.
Dylan Carlson is emerging as a star in the making to account for one of the three spots on a regular basis. But elsewhere in the Cardinals outfield, it's been a story of fits and starts as the younger players vying for opportunities have not yet consistently asserted their presence this year.
Beyond Arozarena, others from the once-upon-a-Cardinals outfield mix like Randal Grichuk and Adolis Garcia have sprinted out to hot starts this year to add more salt to the wound. Watching some among the current Cardinals outfielders struggle with depressed batting averages and increasingly common lapses in the field hasn't been any easier when the grass looks so much greener for several players that conceivably could be filling these roles.
O'Neill was a Grapefruit League darling for the Cardinals this spring, swatting a couple of home runs while driving in 10 runs and boasting a .938 OPS to lead the team. When the calendar turned from exhibitions to regular-season contests, though, he struggled to maintain the traction that he found down in Florida.
Though an Opening Day home run seemed at that time like a good omen for O'Neill, he floundered across his next seven games. O'Neill posted a .125 average with 13 strikeouts and zero walks over his next 24 plate appearances before leaving the game on April 10 with a pulled groin muscle. His prosperity under the Florida sun wasn't translating to the games that mattered and now O'Neill was staring down a stint on the injured list.
But the 25-year-old Canadian has always shown an even-keeled mentality when discussing his process as a player. He wasn't going to let the setback faze him, and ultimately, it may have presented a timely opportunity to step back and refocus his game.
“Back in spring I was seeing the ball well, putting swings on pitches in the middle of the zone. I just started to expand a bit at the beginning of the season,” O’Neill said Sunday. “I was able to take a little reset, take a step back and identify what I was doing. Just trying to stay within the zone and put good swings on good pitches to hit.”
Off the IL and back in the Cardinals lineup Sunday at Busch Stadium, O'Neill resembled the version of himself that we saw at Roger Dean Stadium in February and March. The left fielder beat Luis Castillo in consecutive at-bats, launching a pair of home runs into the bleachers to the right side of the Busch Stadium batter's eye.
The pair of impressive lift-offs to the opposite field paced the Cardinals offense in a 5-2 win over the Reds, helping St. Louis to a key series sweep and showing that O'Neill's simplified plate approach was exactly what he needed.
“That just proves the power, right?” Mike Shildt said. “I mean, he’s a big strong guy. Tyler’s clearly got big power. And guys that have big power, they don’t have to do anything too crazy. They just have to put a good stroke on it—and that’s what he had against a guy that’s got good stuff. He didn’t try to do too much. He got a barrel to it and the ball jumped. Great at-bats."
O'Neill used his rehab time to regain his previous momentum, launching home runs at the Alternate Training Site as he found his balance back at the plate. The resurgence of his simplistic approach to hitting is something with which his manager can get on board.
"I always appreciate when guys go back to what’s made them successful,” Shildt said. “This game can be a challenge and sometimes when it doesn’t go as well as you’d like, you start to get more result-oriented and start thinking about external things and get distracted. When really, if you get back to the controllables.
"To a point where, when you’re good, what are you doing and what do you need to do to put yourself in the most successful spot consistently? Typically positive things work out for guys with the talent that we have, and that’s specific to Tyler, as well.”
Shildt's vote of confidence will be valuable one for O'Neill in the coming weeks.
There are only so many seats at the table in the Cardinals outfield. Matt Carpenter fading as a factor for playing time should shift Tommy Edman back to the infield more regularly, but Harrison Bader's return in the coming weeks could force Shildt into more difficult decisions.
With his Sunday afternoon power display, O'Neill gave Shildt all the reasons he needs to keep penciling his name into the batting order for the time being.
Copyright 2021 KMOV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.