photo: Tyler O’Neill (Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports)
FREE article. The Cardinal Nation’s top 50 prospect countdown for 2019 moves into the top five with the best power prospect in the Cardinals system. Still, Tyler O’Neill has yet to earn an extended shot in the majors and his 2019 picture remains unsettled, as well.
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Link to Tyler O’Neill’s player page at The Cardinal Nation, with additional biography and history information.
Selected 2018 stats
TCN Scouting Grade: 6, Risk: low (click here to review scales)
Staff comments (individual rankings in parentheses)
Message board community (3): Tyler O’Neill finished at #3 during the community vote after debuting at #4 last year, following his mid-season 2017 trade with Seattle for Marco Gonzales. Oddly, O’Neill received his many votes at #2 during the community vote, as voters debated whether he should count as a prospect at all, due to his major league service time. He ended up just shy of the rookie requirement finishing with exactly 130 at-bats.
During the vote, most of the early discussion centered on O’Neill’s chances of losing his rookie status. Cardinals27 hopes that O’Neill is not a Quad-A ballplayer. Jungmh323 has some concerns about O’Neill’s contact rates, but thinks his power could offset his problem. I posted that O’Neill crushes the ball and that I would support him getting playing time over Marcell Ozuna in left field with Ozuna having shoulder issues. Ratsbuddy disagreed with that, arguing that with O’Neill’s +40% K-rate, he shouldn’t even be on the team.
Robert Reed was disappointed in manager Mike Shildt burying O’Neill on the bench the last few weeks of September. Reed went further, saying that O’Neill doesn’t figure to be similar to former high strikeout, big power player Mark Reynolds, for instance, due to his above-average defense and baserunning. He mentioned another cool stat about O’Neill in that O’Neill has now played 162 games in the Cardinal organization and has hit 47 home runs in just 514 at-bats, believing O’Neill to have played at an all-star level across his entire time in the minors despite being young for his league at every stop. – Jeremy Byrd
Derek Shore (5): O’Neill has made a mockery of minor league pitchers since entering professional ball with his mammoth power.
He set full-season career-highs in all three slash line categories at Triple-A Memphis while cutting his strikeout rate to a career-low 24.9 percent, which led to his major-league debut in 2018.
In only 64 games at Memphis this past season, O’Neill crushed Triple-A pitching to the tune of a .311/.385/.693 line with a whopping 26 homers and 63 RBI.
“I worked a lot with my hitting coach and we really focused on keeping things simple (at Triple-A),” O’Neill said. “I cut down a few things in my load and preparation. I stayed up the middle and tried not to do too much. I didn’t try to hit home runs. Just tried to hit the ball hard somewhere and stay up the middle.
“That’s what I did well in Triple-A this year is trusting my hands and trusting my eyes.”
O’Neill made his big-league debut on April 19 and was hitting in the middle of the Cardinals order by the summer. He slugged nine homers in 61 games for St. Louis.
From a scouting perspective, evaluators said O’Neill began to mature in his approach by adjusting to the situation and pitcher within the at-bat, rather than swinging at one spot this past season.
As a result, he started striking out less, walking more and picking out better offerings to swing at, depositing hittable pitches a mile away with his tremendous bat speed and strength.
“He’s from another planet,” one opposing Triple-A manager said. “I’ve seen him hit balls normal beings can’t hit it to. That’s pretty special power. His balls go further than anybody else I’ve seen.”
While his power will ultimately play in the big-leagues, scouts are still concerned that O’Neill’s steep uphill swing path will get exposed against quality pitching, and he did strike out 57 times in 142 plate appearances.
O’Neill also showed himself to be a near plus-plus runner as well and improved drastically in right field.
He remains aggressive in his approach and prone to strikeouts, which likely inhibits him from hitting for average, but now he gets to his power enough to profile as an everyday regular.
Even though the Cardinals appear committed to Dexter Fowler as their everyday right fielder for now, O’Neill is waiting in the wings as he will likely vie for that starting job next year as well.
“We also have Tyler O’Neill and he is someone that if he is given 700 plate appearances – he could very easily post 40 home runs,” Cardinals President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak recently told KMOX.
Brian Walton (5): I was really torn on where to place O’Neill. This may sound odd, but I don’t recall ever being so unsure about such a successful minor leaguer who is so close to graduating from this list.
Due to the realities of the roster and his remaining open questions, I put O’Neill fifth, but I could make as articulate of an argument to place him first. While Lane Thomas led the Cardinals system with 27 home runs to O’Neill’s 26 this past season, the latter did it in less than half the plate appearances – 273 to 575. O’Neill’s isolated power was an other-worldly .382.
The only players in the organization with a higher OPS than O’Neill’s 1.078 at Memphis were two short-season stars in Malcom Nunez (in 44 games) and Jhon Torres (in 17 contests).
It seemed that O’Neill was definitely focused on hitting the ball out of the park, as he had just nine doubles and two triples. At Memphis, it worked, as he struck out at a 24.9 percent rate that was tolerable to go with a 10.7 percent walk rate.
In his worst month of 2018 with the Redbirds, O’Neill’s OPS was still .963, a mark that would have been fourth-best in the system for the entire season. In his most dominating period, in July, his OPS was an amazing 1.408, reflecting seven long balls and 13 driven in over 12 games.
To say he has nothing to prove at Triple-A seems unnecessary to state. Yet, that doesn’t mean he is yet proven at the next level.
As most know, O’Neill has been unable to translate that minor league dominance into MLB performance to date. His injury-wrecked spring training put him in Memphis to open 2018, aiding Harrison Bader’s ascension, but O’Neill soon earned a shot. When he launched home runs in three consecutive games in May for St. Louis, O’Neill teased us with his potential. But soon, he was struggling and found himself back in Triple-A.
If O’Neill cannot significantly improve his overall rate of 40.1 percent, he will have a very hard time in the majors. In today’s era of higher strikeouts, some scoff at my assertion. The problem is that O’Neill is beyond the highest extreme.
To put this into context, the two MLB regulars with the absolute highest strikeout percentage last season were Chris Davis at 36.8 percent and Joey Gallo at 35.9 percent. Davis has one of the worst contracts in the game right now and that is the only reason he is still playing every day. Gallo is very unique in that he can also maintain a high walk rate, a mark that was 2.6 times higher than O’Neill’s last season.
Other than Davis and Gallo, no one across MLB who reached qualifying levels of plate appearances struck out more often than one-third of the time – likely because they were benched before they could accrue that much playing time.
It is clear that the Cardinals are not yet ready to give O’Neill a starting job, and likely his inconsistency is a major reason why. As we saw late last season, even though both Opening Day center fielder Tommy Pham and right fielder Dexter Fowler were out of the picture, new manager Mike Shildt had Jose Martinez playing the majority of the time in right, not O’Neill.
Now, we see the odds of Martinez remaining with the Cardinals for 2019 increasing and Fowler having received assurance he will be given the chance to start in right. Harrison Bader is young, healthy and hungry in center and Marcell Ozuna is reportedly healed and ready to go in left. In fact, the bench competition is so tight, there is no guarantee that O’Neill will even be with St. Louis on Opening Day.
Considering everything, it is difficult to project how O’Neill is going to get his extended chance to show improvement in 2019, without injury, poor performance or further roster movement. If worse comes to worst, O’Neill does have minor league option years remaining, but again, he has nothing to prove down in Memphis. Yet it may be necessary at some point for him to secure every day at-bats rather than rust on the Cardinals bench.
Once new St. Louis hitting coach Jeff Albert gets a chance to work with his new charges, O’Neill will be the first player I will ask him about. Albert would earn his keep with this one player alone if he can help him make the final step.
Our 2019 top 50 series continues
To see the entire list of top Cardinals prospects and remaining article schedule, click here. This includes the top 50 countdown and 10 in-depth, follow-up articles coming up next. Most of them are exclusively for members of The Cardinal Nation. If you are not a member, join today so you do not miss out!
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