Cardinals left-hander Packy Naughton underwent surgery to repair the flexor tendon in his left elbow, reports Jeff Jones of the Belleville News-Democrat, but his ulnar collateral ligament did not require repair.
It was reported last week that Naughton would require season-ending surgery of some kind, though the exact nature of the procedure wasn’t known. The fact that the lefty’s UCL didn’t need any work is surely a silver lining in this challenging process.
Despite that small bit of good news, Naughton is likely still looking at a long road back to the mound, as flexor tendon surgery can also lead to extended absences. For instance, Matthew Boyd required the procedure in late September of 2021 and he got back to the big leagues in early September of 2022, missing almost a year. Tarik Skubal went under the knife in August of last year and is currently on a rehab assignment more than 10 months later. Each person and injury is different but it seems likely that Naughton will miss part of the 2024 campaign, in addition to missing the remainder of 2023.
Last year was his first with St. Louis and he posted a 4.78 ERA in 32 innings, but with strong peripherals. He struck out 22% of opponents while walking just 5% and getting grounders on 49.5% of balls in play. He started 2023 with five scoreless innings before landing on the injured list and that will now be the totality of his work for the year. He’s already on the 60-day injured list and will stay there for the rest of the year, though he’ll need to be added back to the roster in the offseason.
Turning to another injured Cardinal, Tyler O’Neill is back to baseball activity, per Jones. The outfielder is hoping to be heading out on a rehab assignment next week. He’s been on the shelf since May 5 due to a lower back strain.
The return of O’Neill will make for an interesting storyline with just over a month to go until the August 1 trade deadline. The Cardinals have had a disappointing season so far and are currently 33-45, placing them eight games back of the Reds in the National League Central and even further out in the Wild Card race. Though a hot streak in the next few weeks could get them right back into the mix, president of baseball operations John Mozeliak recently admitted that they may have to make some tough decisions this summer.
O’Neill will be returning to a crowded outfield picture. Tommy Edman started the year at shortstop but a resurgent Paul DeJong has bumped him to center field, where he has carried himself well. Through 189 1/3 innings in center so far this year, he has two Outs Above Average and a grade of 1.1 from Ultimate Zone Rating, while Defensive Runs Saved considers him exactly league average. His .238/.308/.403 batting line on the year is slightly below par, translating to a wRC+ of 96, but he’s still plenty valuable due to his defense, versatility and baserunning.
Similarly, the ascendance of Nolan Gorman at second base has often pushed Brendan Donovan into left field this year. Donovan has been producing roughly league average defense while hitting .269/.362/.384 for a wRC+ of 111. Then there’s Lars Nootbaar, who’s hitting .262/.368/.378 for a wRC+ of 111 while playing the corners. Rookie Jordan Walker is hitting .303/.369/.472 for a wRC+ of 135, slotting in as the designated hitter regularly but also taking a corner outfield spot at times. Dylan Carlson is also in the mix, hitting .248/.327/.404 for a wRC+ of 105. Alec Burleson and Óscar Mercado are also on the roster but neither has been able to get much playing time of late.
Even without O’Neill, the club is juggling plenty of different options and it won’t clear up any time soon as all of those players are still under control for 2024. The club has a $12.5MM option for DeJong’s services in 2024, with a $2MM buyout, that once seemed sure to be bought out but he might be playing his way into that getting picked up. He’s still providing strong shortstop defense while hitting .234/.297/.467 for a 109 wRC+. Even if DeJong isn’t there next year, shortstop prospect Masyn Winn is in Triple-A and will need a major league audition soon.
O’Neill can be retained for 2024 as well, though that would be his final arbitration year before qualifying for free agency. That perhaps makes him the most logical trade candidate of the bunch. Given the overcrowded roster in St. Louis and the fact that he and manager Oli Marmol got in a public argument earlier this year, perhaps O’Neill will be reading his name in trade rumors in the next few weeks.
He’s making $4.95MM this year and would be in line for a raise next year. It would likely be a modest bump given his missed time and the fact that he’s hit just .228/.283/.337 on the season so far, 73 wRC+. Nonetheless, he’d be an intriguing buy-low candidate for other clubs. In 2021, he hit 34 home runs and slashed .286/.352/.560 for a 144 wRC+. He also stole 15 bases and was graded well in the outfield, leading to a tally of 5.6 wins above replacement from FanGraphs. His production has dipped in the past couple of seasons while dealing with injuries, but there should still be some trade value there.