St. Louis Cardinals: Finding comps for a Tyler O’Neill extension

The St. Louis Cardinals have a gem in Tyler O’Neill and may want him to stick around a while. What could an extension look like?

It took a few years, but the Tyler O’Neill that the St. Louis Cardinals believed they’d get when they traded for him has finally shown up in 2021. Since his solid debut in 2018, O’Neill hasn’t gotten more than 150 at-bats in any year other than 2021. His opportunities were scarce, but he also didn’t take advantage of them. Coming into 2021, it was a make-or-break year for the muscle-bound outfielder.

Lucky for us, O’Neill has stepped up and found a home in the three-hole providing the depth to the lineup that the team needed in a big way. After a 70 wRC+ in 2020, fans were ready to pull the plug. And despite him winning the NL Gold Glove in left field digging deeper within his 2020 numbers were huge improvements in O’Neill’s plate discipline that flagged 2021 as a potential breakout year.

With a 140 wRC+ and 4.5 fWAR on the season, O’Neill ranks him right next to Mookie Betts and Nick Castellanos among National League outfielders. While he has gone through a couple of slumps this season, the Canadian has been the team’s offensive MVP and has consistently made the adjustments to stay competitive as pitchers change their approach against him.

With how good his season has been, it’s fair to wonder if the Cardinals’ front office will approach O’Neill this winter about an extension to keep him and his powerful bat around long-term. Right now, O’Neill his first arbitration-eligible winter, putting his salary on the rise. Without an extension, O’Neill is under contract through the 2024 season but if he continues to put up an fWAR near 5.0, keeping him around will only get more and more expensive.

Given that O’Neill is entering arbitration after three subpar years prior to 2021, it puts him in a unique spot as far as comparable extensions that would give an idea of what the market would demand for an O’Neill extension. Thankfully, two players in similar spots have signed extensions in the past two years.

Max Kepler

Max Kepler has a very similar archetype to Tyler O’Neill in that both are power-hitting corner outfielders who both at one time ranked in the top 50 prospects in baseball. Debuting in 2015, Kepler has been a staple in the Twins lineup. Despite being a top-ranked prospect, things started slow for Kepler in MLB.

In his first three full seasons, Kepler averaged just a .233/.314/.418 slash which is good for a 96 OPS+. The difference between O’Neill’s first years and Kepler’s is sample size. In O’Neill’s first three seasons, he had 450 plate appearances while Kepler had 1626. Before the 2019 season, when the 26-year-old Kepler was entering his first year of arbitration, the Twins signed the right fielder to a five-year, $35 million deal with a team option for a sixth year.

Immediately, the Twins were rewarded for their faith in Kepler as he blew his previous batting lines out of the water in 2019. Finishing 20th in AL MVP voting, Kepler hit .252/.336/.519 with 36 homers and a 122 wRC+. That level of production for $6 million is awesome, but Kepler has returned to Earth in 2020 and 2021, posting a 107 and 93 wRC+ in each season. At 28, with two years remaining on the contract, Kepler’s extension looks somewhat like a cautionary tale.

The difference is that there was zero track record of a good year with Kepler before he signed that extension. Still though, Kepler has delivered a 1.5 fWAR at a price of just $6.5 million this year. It’s fair to assume O’Neill would be more expensive than Kepler

Yoán Moncada

The White Sox third baseman is probably the closest comp to O’Neill as far as career path goes. While O’Neill was never a top-10 prospect in baseball like Moncada was and they play different positions, Moncada signed his current extension at 25 prior to his first year of arbitration.

After his long-awaited debut in 2016, an eight-game sample didn’t yield any worthwhile results. In the two seasons that followed, Moncada had two underwhelming years just like O’Neill. In their first three seasons, Moncada slashed .234/.319/.399 (96 OPS+) while  O’Neill slashed .229/.291/.422 (91 OPS+). Again, these are two different types of hitters and Moncada was playing third base and second base, but those are two relatively similar disappointing lines for the first three seasons of a top prospect.

The fourth season is where things change for both players, as Moncada slashed .315/.367/.548 with 25 homers and a 139 wRC+ in 2019. O’Neill, meanwhile, is slashing .282/.355/.535 with 28 homers in 2021 and a 140 wRC+. His wRC+ is likely only higher because of the fact he’s doing it at Busch Stadium half the time and changes in league-adjusted stats.

This breakout for Moncada landed him a five-year, $70 million deal prior to the 2020 season that also included a team option for a sixth year. The switch-hitter was one year younger than O’Neill and likely leveraged that as well as other things to get all the way to $70 million, but this is the closest player who followed a similar path as O’Neill and signed an extension in the same spot O’Neill will be at this winter.

How about O’Neill

If O’Neill had no track record of a big year like Kepler, it would make a lot of sense to see him get to that five-year, $40 million range. However, his big year this year would warrant a substantial raise especially when he can name former MVPs Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman as players he has been more valuable than. The biggest thing to take from the comps of Moncada and Kepler is that the most likely contract construction for a player in O’Neill’s shoes is a five-year deal with an option for a sixth.

O’Neill also has the ability to leverage his 2020 gold glove and is tied for the lead in OAA among NL left fielders once again in 2021. The other thing for the Cardinals to consider is how long they have waited for an outfielder to step up and grab a spot out there. Now that O’Neill has, they could be risking tens of millions if he puts up a similar year again next year. The risk is also there that O’Neill follows Kepler and falls way back to Earth in 2022.

Considering how good O’Neill has been this year and without the benefits of being a top prospect and switch hitter, my best guess for what it would cost to keep O’Neill around is a five-year deal in the $60-65 million range with an option for a sixth year. That would keep O’Neill with the Cardinals through his age-31 season with an option for his age-32 season. As someone who has been unapologetically drinking the Tyler O’Neill koolaid for three years, I would offer that in a heartbeat.

One big obstacle in all of this is that O’Neill is represented by everyone’s favorite agent, Scott Boras. Boras knows all about the “big bank of St. Louis” and has a track record of urging his players to try and score big through free agency rather than signing an extension. With just one year of performance, it’s just a tough situation to judge how both O’Neill’s camp and the Cardinals’ front office will try and play it.

Offering five years and $60-65 million to O’Neill may seem like too big a risk for the Cardinals to take based on one good year, but if he repeats this performance next year the cost will only go up. Based on recent extensions of comparable players, that’s the type of deal that makes the most sense.