You'll be hard-pressed to find a bigger fan of Tyler O'Neill than myself. Ever since the St. Louis Cardinals traded for him back in 2017, I have been leading the fan club as I believed the Cardinals had a star in the making.
In 2021, the stars aligned for O'Neill and he realized that potential, becoming a top-10 MVP candidate with his powerful bat, Gold Glove defense, and game-changing speed on the basepaths.
Then came 2022, where injuries derailed his season, and when healthy, he just rarely looked right at the plate. 2023 looked to be a brighter year for O'Neill as he won the center field job and homered on Opening Day, but that quickly derailed as well with injuries and a very public callout from Oli Marmol.
Honestly, I had lost hope that O'Neill would ever be a significant part of the Cardinals ever again. His back injury kept lingering, and it truly felt like the moment the Cardinals could trade O'Neill for something of value, they'd pull the trigger.
While that still may be the case, I am beginning to believe the Cardinals' best path toward contention in 2024 will be by keeping Tyler O'Neill in their starting outfield.
How Tyler O'Neill could slug his way into the Cardinals 2024 outfield mix
Let me walk you through how I got to this conclusion. First, I'm not of the opinion that the Cardinals can't move O'Neill under any circumstances. If a team really likes him in the offseason and is willing to part with real pitching help, you've got to be willing to listen to that.
Where I currently stand on the topic is that I do not believe there will be a team out there who gives the Cardinals enough value in a trade to make it worth trading O'Neill. The Cardinals will likely have to part with one or more of Brendan Donovan, Alec Burleson, or Tommy Edman to get the pitching help they want in a trade.
Yes, O'Neill has been on the IL far more often than he, the Cardinals, or anyone who watches him would prefer. Yes, there is some risk in banking on him to provide value to the team next year because of that. But it's also true that the potential value he could add to the Cardinals in 2024 will likely far outweigh what he can bring them back in a trade.
Since returning from the IL, O'Neill is slashing .306/.404/.571 with a 167 wRC+. If you check out his underlying statistics on Baseball Savant, since his return, his average exit velocity, xBA, xOBP, xSLG, K%, BB%, and more are all in elite company. The way he's playing right now is not flukey, he's playing his best self again.
If he's part of a package that brings back someone like Tyler Glasnow, one of the Mariners' young starting pitchers, or some other starter that can make a big impact, that's one thing. But if O'Neilli is traded for some okay prospects or low-ceiling arms, he has the potential to have a Randy Arozarena or Adolis Garcia type of impact on his future team.
Some of you may say, "Well, if he does that, good for him. The Cardinals just can't afford to rely on him again". That's just simply not true. The Cardinals have the necessary outfield depth to "risk" seeing what O'Neill can offer them in 2024. The team currently has O'Neill, Lars Nootbaar, Jordan Walker, Dylan Carlson, and Alec Burleson, as well as Brendan Donovan and Tommy Edman as outfield options. Even if two names from this group other than O'Neill are dealt this offseason, that still leaves them with five outfield options on their roster then you can feel good about playing.
The worst thing the Cardinals can do is go into this offseason with the goal of trading Tyler O'Neill. If he is the piece that nets them real starting pitching help, my tune could change. But assuming he's not the guy they'll have to move to get that, I see way too much upside in O'Neill to trade him away for cents on the dollar this offseason.