Tyler O’Neill is the Cardinals’ only arbitration-eligible player who has yet to reach an agreement for the 2022 season, and Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports (Twitter link) that O’Neill’s arb hearing will take place in the first week of May. However, the possibility exists that the hearing could be avoided, as the two sides are still in talks about a multi-year extension.
It was less than two weeks ago that the Cardinals reached an extension with another outfielder, as Harrison Bader inked a two-year, $10.4MM deal that also allowed both sides to sidestep an arbitration hearing. Bader’s deal covered his final two years of arbitration eligibility, whereas O’Neill is only in the first of three arb-eligible years. It isn’t known whether or not the negotiations are centered around a two- or three-year pact to just address O’Neill’s arbitration years, or if perhaps a longer-term contract could be under discussion.
The Cardinals have been proactive in extending building-block players over the years, and O’Neill’s 2021 breakout makes a good case that he is worth such a long-term extension. O’Neill hit .286/.352/.560 with 34 home runs over 537 plate appearances last season, translating to a whopping 144 wRC+ and 150 OPS+. Between that offensive pop, plus baserunning (O’Neill stole 15 bases in 19 attempts), and his second consecutive Gold Glove in left field, O’Neill was somewhat quietly one of baseball’s best all-around players, and only 12 players topped O’Neill’s 5.4 fWAR in 2021.
This big season didn’t exactly come out of nowhere, as O’Neill was a top-100 ranked prospect. However, he had hit a far more modest .229/.291/.422 in 450 big league PA prior to the 2021 season, and strikeouts have been a continual problem for the Canadian slugger. O’Neill posted a 31.3% strikeout rate in 2021, putting him in the fourth percentile of all players according to Statcast.
With this in mind, St. Louis could opt to just explore a shorter-term extension for now, in order to gain cost certainty over at least one more of O’Neill’s arbitration years but still coming short of a lengthy commitment. As noted, this is only O’Neill’s first trip through the arb process, and since he isn’t scheduled to hit free agency until after the 2024 season, the Cardinals may not feel an immediate rush to work out a big extension. O’Neill is looking for a $4.15MM salary in 2022, while the team submitted a $3.4MM figure. (MLBTR’s Matt Swartz projected O’Neill to land $3.5MM.)