Tyler O’Neill Targets Cardinals Center Field Post

With last year’s trade of Harrison Baderthe Cardinals have less certainty in center than they have had in a few years. Dylan Carlson he got significant playing time there down the stretch and appears to be the favorite for the job going forward, but he will have competition. Tyler O’Neill he told reporters, including Lynn Worthy of St. Louis Post-Dispatch, that he has his sights set on the job.

“I would love to play midfield,” said Ó Néill. “I’m not trying to push anyone out of that job either, but whatever they see fit. I know they are very analytically committed here. I just want to be the best player I can be. I worked extremely hard last season increasing my quick first step and making sure that my legs can be under me. I believe I can definitely play that position if that’s where they want me.”

The club seems willing to give him a shot. “(He) is competing for the center position,” manager Oliver Marmol said. “He came into camp wanting that. He came up through our minor league system and profiled as a pretty good substitute. So he wants it and he’s going to compete for it and he’s going to have a chance to do it.” O’Neill will have a chance to test himself in competitive games before the start of the MLB season, as he is slated to play center field for Team Canada in the upcoming World Baseball Classic.

O’Neill, 28 in June, will be looking to bounce back from a disappointing season last year, but his 2021 has been excellent. In 2021, he hit 34 home runs and stole 15 bases, producing a .286/.352/.560 batting line and a 144 wRC+. Defensively, he played exclusively in left field but posted strong marks there, including 11 Defensive Runs Saved, four Above Average Outs and a 6.7 Final Zone Rating. Taking all of his contributions into account, he was worth 5.6 wins above replacement according to FanGraphs calculations. That put him 13th among all position players in the majors, just ahead of guys like Aaron Judge and Jose Altuve.

However, he was unable to maintain that type of production in 2022, possibly due to injuries. A shoulder impingement and hamstring strain led to spells on the injured list, limiting O’Neill to 96 games in the season. His batting line dropped to .228/.308/.392, a wRC+ of 101, and his defensive grades also slipped.

Since center field is considered a more challenging defensive position than the corners, O’Neill could be even more valuable than he was in 2021. Of course, that would depend on his health and ability to be a viable central player. As Marmol mentioned, O’Neill came to center stage in the minors, but not for long. He logged 55 innings in High-A in 2015, 71 innings in Triple-A in 2017 and then another 50 2/3 innings at that level in 2018, the year he made his major league hit. In the majors, he has 210 2/3 innings so far, most of that coming last year. It’s hard to get a sensible read on such a limited sample, especially since he was injured at times last year, but at least he’s about average. The DRS and OAA are at zero flat so far, and UZR is slightly in the positive range at 0.8.

Carlson, 24, gained much more experience in center field in the minors, including nearly 800 innings at that position in 2018 and 2019. Since coming to the majors, he has more than 1,000 He has logged innings in the middle with solid grades, including 6 DRS and 2 OAA, though his UZR is slightly below average at -1.0.

Defensively, he’s probably a simpler solution for the club, but his offense hasn’t shown the kind of ceiling O’Neill has. In 312 major league games, he has 29 home runs and eight stolen bases. His .247/.323/.407 batting is slightly above average with a 103 wRC+.

That kind of production is still strong for a talented central defender, but if O’Neill is deemed worthy at that point, it could open up other opportunities for the club. They have one of the best prospects in the league Jordan Walker, although he’ll probably fit the corner. He came up as a third baseman but only recently started playing the field Nolan Arenado dibs is on the hot corner in St Louis for years to come. Walker moved into center last year but spent much more time at right tackle. He hit Double-A pitching last year by hitting .306/.388/.510 for a wRC+ of 128 at age 20.

Walker will likely start the year in Triple-A but his promotion does not appear to be far off. At some point, the Cards will have to figure out how to balance the playing time between Walker, O’Neill and Carlson, as well as players like Lars Nootbaar, Juan Eipez and Alec Burleson. The designated hitter slot should be open this year with Albert Pujols retired now, but it looks like there will be a logjam at some point. It’s the proverbial “good problem to have” and the inevitable injuries will surely reduce the congestion at some point, but the club could face some tough choices going forward.

All of his outfield options are still shy of reaching arbitration and come with years of affordable control, except for O’Neill. He has four to five years of service time and is set to hit free agency after 2024.

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