A spring training that started with the promise of taking him places instead left Cardinals outfielder Tyler O’Neill rooted in Florida, far from his home, for almost six months.
He had nowhere to go and that gave him reason to find plenty to do.
“Why not take advantage of the time we have?” O’Neill said. “You never get the benefit of it because it’s go-go-go all the time in this game. What city are we going to? What pitcher are we facing? It’s about getting ready for what’s next, and I had a chance to reflect on what’s right.”
Unsure of how long baseball’s stoppage would last, O’Neill opted to remain in the West Palm Beach, Fla., area and not return home to British Columbia. For most of the past three months since Major League Baseball halted spring training he has been by himself, with the exception of working with Cardinals hitting coach Jeff Albert three times a week and the research O’Neill threw himself into on his nutrition, on his swing, and on his approach.
Tested twice in the past week for COVID-19 — once leaving Florida and then again as part of the entry screening for Cardinals’ preseason camp — O’Neill, reunited recently with his girlfriend, spent the weekend settling in St. Louis, and, he confessed, itching to hit.
After having a long time away from games, O’Neill now has a short burst to maximize an opportunity the Cardinals keep advertising.
“I feel like I’ve utilized my time in quarantine to get ahead,” he said.
The Cardinals officially open their “summer camp” Friday at Busch Stadium with staggered, small-group workouts. With the cluster of outfielders, the team intends to pick up where it left off in spring — with O’Neill and Lane Thomas leading the competition to be Marcell Ozuna’s replacement in left.
The Cardinals spent most of the winter insisting they would give their existing young outfielders the first crack at the opening this spring and they’ve affirmed that intent this summer. John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations, often said they needed to give O’Neill a chance he “was not really given” to “see what we have.”
The Cardinals are bullish on who they have coming — top prospect Dylan Carlson, the Class AA Texas League’s MVP this past season. But time is in play there, too, as an early promotion in this shortened season could cost the Cardinals a full season of control for a few games now.
Carlson impressed during Grapefruit League play with a .313/.436/.469 line with more walks (six) than strikeouts (five), but as the final two weeks of games arrived his playing time thinned and the Cardinals’ showed their hand with O’Neill and Thomas playing more often. Asked this past week how performance in March will carry over to decisions that have to be made swiftly into August, manager Mike Shildt said the desired quality hasn’t changed.
It’s still consistency.
The need to see it is accelerated.
“Trust your eyes. See what you think,” Shildt said. “Continue to make sure everybody has a plan, and it’s anchored to something. That’s one of the biggest things for consistency. Experience comes from being anchored to something. Individually, if guys are clear and understand and are anchored to what they do and how they do it, how they’re successful, they’ve got that resource to draw from. That’s usually a good recipe for consistency.”
O’Neill began his claim to left with a towering home run that left his bat at 115.2 mph in his first at-bat of spring — way back on Feb. 22.
He would hit one other home run in his next 38 at-bats of spring and when camp closed he had more strikeouts (14) than hits (seven) and walks (five) combined. The recent time in Florida allowed him the chance to continue refining his diet — he reduced his red meat intake and veered toward vegetables going into spring — and reflecting on his swing. He described how coming out of Canada “if I wanted to get out and play ball, I had to have a significant tool, I had to get noticed.” That was power.
With Albert as a resource, O’Neill used the weeks in Florida to focus on what he called “little things” he could do at the plate that may have been misplaced in the big swings. He shifted the angle of his back foot to allow him to have a better base, more balance toward the back side as he coiled. He hopes that gives him more time to see the ball, and he knows through drills it’s helped in work on full extension of his bat. He and Albert would go through a tee drill to get greater extension on his swing.
The goal was to achieve what former hitting coach Mark McGwire often talked about — keeping the bat in the strike zone as long as possible to the point of extension.
O’Neill has been watching video of McGwire the past couple years, and specifically looked again at the slugger’s extension as he greeted pitches. O’Neill said from video of McGwire there’s a lot to learn about how a young masher “with a lean back, upper cut” found a steadier swing that still produced power. O’Neill is a year removed from hitting 35 homers for the Cardinals organization, including nine in the majors, and since trading to get him from Seattle the Cardinals have wanted to see the power manifest in the majors.
He tried to make the most of his time.
Now is the time.
“I feel like I’m in in the best position to exceed expectations,” O’Neill said. “I know I can succeed at this level, and it’s a matter of doing that consistently. I haven’t had time and time again to do it because of injuries or other reasons. And that’s OK. I have to earn it. This is the year to prove it.”
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