St. Louis Cardinals: Tyler O’Neill and Randal Grichuk, the clone wars

MILWAUKEE, WI - AUGUST 30: Randal Grichuk #15 of the St. Louis Cardinals hits a home run in the fifth inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park on August 30, 2017 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
MILWAUKEE, WI - AUGUST 30: Randal Grichuk #15 of the St. Louis Cardinals hits a home run in the fifth inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park on August 30, 2017 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images) /

The St. Louis Cardinals have quite a situation going on in their outfield. Seven players will enter 2018 Spring Training competing for three starting spots.

The St. Louis Cardinals have quite the conundrum: a great number of outfielders with not so great a number of slots for them. Two of the seven outfielders with the St. Louis Cardinals are essentially exactly the same. One of these two needs to be traded. Is it Tyler O’Neill or is it Randal Grichuk?

Yesterday, on the ‘Bernie Miklasz Show,’ Cardinals General Manager Michael Girsch said that Tommy Pham has “more than earned a starting job going into next season.” The numbers certainly bear this out, as Pham leads the Cardinals in fWAR at 5.1 and is second in the National League in fWAR per 600 PA at 6.4, only trailing Anthony Rendon.

We can fangirl over Tommy Pham any other day of the week, but I’m here to sort something else out: the fact that the Cardinals have two players ready to help the big league club in 2018 who are almost exactly the same.

Everybody knows Randal Grichuk. He’s been in St. Louis for four seasons now, coming over in the David Freese trade following the 2013 season, and has been as polarizing a figure as has ever put on a St. Louis uniform.

Tyler O’Neill just finished his third month in the Cardinals system after coming over in a mid-season trade from the Seattle Mariners. He was a force for the PCL champion Memphis Redbirds and, at 23 and having just gone through a successful Triple-A season, appears ready to help the big club.

Combine those three players with Dexter Fowler, Stephen Piscotty, Harrison Bader, Magneuris Sierra and Jose Martinez and you can pretty easily understand that the St. Louis Cardinals have a situation going on in their outfield.

Off the top of my head, there will be seven legitimate candidates entering Spring Training 2018 with a starting outfield spot in St. Louis on their mind.

Out of those seven, Dexter Fowler and Stephen Piscotty have the big contracts, Pham was just all but promised a starting spot, Bader and Sierra probably aren’t fully ready yet, and Martinez is reportedly undergoing a position switch this offseason in hopes of becoming a first baseman.

Which leaves us with Grichuk, O’Neill and an old proverb that reads, “when two people are exactly the same, one is no longer needed.”

Focusing on just the two of them for now, one needs to go this offseason. The Cardinals have far too many average outfielders and need to begin, in GM Girsch’s words, “turning what we have into what we need.”

So, who should it be? Let’s dive into the numbers and see what those have to say.

Randal Grichuk’s ability at the Major League level is pretty well known at this point. Over his 1,362 career plate appearances, he slashes .249/.296/.496 while sporting a 30% K rate, .237 ISO, 5.7% walk rate, and 107 WRC+. Grichuk is a slightly above average overall offensive performer with a plus slugging profile and the kind of on-base numbers that give Billy Beane night-frights.

Defensively, Grichuk is above average, albeit unspectacular, at all 3 outfield positions. His DRS is plus in center, right, left and he has never had a negatively valued defensive year according to Fangraphs.

The outrage over Grichuk’s center field defense during his tenure there in 2016 is mostly unfounded, according to the numbers, as he posted a +7 DRS and was St. Louis’ most valuable defensive outfielder according to Fangraphs dWAR.

Randal Grichuk is the type of player who a lot of teams in the league could use: an above-average defensive outfielder with plus power and above-average speed.

Tyler O’Neill’s stock has skyrocketed since his midseason trade from Seattle. After a monster 2016 season at Double-A Jackson in which he posted a 152 WRC+, O’Neill started slowly at Triple-A Tacoma and the Mariners’ front office apparently deemed him expendable.

Since coming to Memphis, O’Neill has blasted 12 home runs in 161 plate appearances, slashing .253/.314/.548 with a K rate of 26.7% and a walk rate of 6.2%, all adding up to a WRC+ of 110. Not quite as good as his huge 2016 campaign, but still a terrific performance for a player in his first year at Triple-A.

Defensively, O’Neill plays all three positions and, while minor league stats don’t include defensive metrics, scouting reports insist that O’Neill is a plus defender with a plus arm. The only exposure I have to him are several highlight plays for the Memphis Redbirds this season and, based on those, he certainly checks all the boxes defensively.

Both guys have a strikeout rate in the high 20%’s, although O’Neill has shown the ability to get on base at a much better clip than Grichuk (10.8% walk rate and .374 OBP at Double-A). Continuing the identical comparison, both guys hit home runs in bunches and have massive power, both guys are plus defensively at all three outfield spots, and both guys run well.

The only real difference between Grichuk and O’Neill is that the former has played at the Major League level while the latter, three years younger, hasn’t. Which brings us to the money question: who stays and who goes?

I would prefer the St. Louis Cardinals keep Tyler O’Neill 10 times out of 10.

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O’Neill’s walk rate at Memphis of 6.2% doesn’t match up with his career norms thus far. That 10.8% number during his 2016 season at Double-A and the 11.1% number he posted over 396 PA at Triple-A Tacoma before the trade to St. Louis are more in line with what I expect from him. Between two slugging players, I’ll always want the one who can get on base more often.

To go along with that, O’Neill’s BABIP of .266 suggests he had a lot of bad luck in Memphis. His Double-A BABIP of .364 is likely unsustainable, but his Tacoma number of .295 seems far more reasonable, and with the amount of hard contact that O’Neill makes, a 30-point difference in BABIP is huge.

In terms of trade value, I view Grichuk as a more valuable trade chip than O’Neill even though I’ve just talked him up. Grichuk’s undeniable Major League readiness and the fact that he’s still only 26 has a lot of value. Combine that with his terrific 2015 season in which he posted a 3.1 WAR over a mere 350 plate appearances and this is a young player who still has tremendous upside.

As for O’Neill, it’s not a good look for the Cardinals to be actively trying to offload a guy they just acquired a few months ago. Buyer’s remorse never looks good on the trade market and the Cardinals shouldn’t try it here with O’Neill.

A potential Randal Grichuk trade would make O’Neill’s path to the big club much clearer and would continue to clear out the remaining ‘Matheny Guys’ who hog-up the leader of men’s favor and playing time.

Next: Advocating for Dakota Hudson

There is still a lot more work to do in order to sort out the outfield before the 2018 season, but trading Grichuk would be a positive start. The St. Louis Cardinals definitely have something in Tyler O’Neill, but they don’t need two of him.