The Cardinals’ logjam in the outfield has been well-documented by now, but one path to alleviating that situation apparently isn’t under consideration at this time; Katie Woo of The Athletic reports that the Cardinals plan to hold onto O’Neill at this year’s deadline.
Elsewhere on the roster, the Cards have made clear to other clubs that they expect to trade starters Jordan Montgomery and Jack Flaherty as well as shortstop Paul DeJong, ESPN’s Jeff Passan reports. Passan adds Jordan Hicks as a possible trade candidate, and it’s only natural that righty Chris Stratton — another potential free agent — would also be on the block.
Moving the 28-year-old O’Neill at this stage would unequivocally be selling low. The two-time Gold Glove winner and eighth-place finisher in 2021 NL MVP voting has played in just 130 games since Opening Day 2022, batting a paltry (by his standards) .229/.309/.381 in 502 plate appearances along the way. It’s a far cry from O’Neill’s mammoth .286/.352/.560 batting line and 34 homers in 2021.
The Cards control O’Neill through the 2024 season, as he’ll be arbitration-eligible for the final time this offseason. Woo quotes both O’Neill and manager Oli Marmol in a piece that Cards fans, in particular, will want to read. Broadly speaking, the organization believes an emphasis on routine and collaborative communication can help O’Neill remain on the field more regularly (though that makes the decision to buck his routine by placing him in center field early in the season seem particularly curious).
O’Neill is one of several outfielders vying for playing time in St. Louis. Lars Nootbaar has become entrenched in center field, and top prospect Jordan Walker is currently patrolling right field. O’Neill’s return pushed former top prospect Dylan Carlson to a bench role, and there’s been ample reporting and speculation on the possibility of a Carlson trade looming on the horizon. First baseman/outfielder and utilitymen extraordinaire Brendan Donovan and Tommy Edman also factor into the outfield mix — at times being pushed there by Nolan Gorman’s presence at second base.
The Cards would also be selling low on Carlson in many ways, though the 24-year-old switch-hitter’s remaining three seasons of club control beyond the current year give him more appeal than O’Neill’s one remaining year. Carlson’s ability to play all three outfield spots — center field, in particular — at a high level could also increase the chances of landing direly needed controllable pitching in a trade. O’Neill certainly isn’t likely to command that type of return on the heels of two injury-plagued seasons; he only just returned from a 60-day IL stint thanks to a back strain.
The likely trades of Montgomery and Flaherty have been discussed ad nauseum by now. Both are free agents at season’s end. Montgomery is the more valuable arm at present, touting a 3.37 ERA, 21.7% strikeout rate, 6.4% walk rate and 45.2% grounder rate in 115 innings. He’d be a veritable lock to receive and reject a qualifying offer, so the Cardinals figure to insist on greater value than a 2024 compensatory pick in return. He’s being $10.01MM in 2023.
Flaherty looked like a burgeoning ace in 2019 but has seen several recent seasons ruined by injury. He’s been healthy in ’23, pitching 104 2/3 innings of 4.49 ERA ball. His 22.2% strikeout rate is roughly average, but his 11.3% walk rate is a glaring red flag. He’s three years younger than Montgomery and earning roughly half the salary ($5.4MM) in 2023, however.
DeJong’s status as a likely trade target registers as a clear bonus for the Cards. Entering the season, he didn’t even appear like a lock to make the roster, having slashed just .182/.269/.352 in 190 games from 2021-22. But DeJong has enjoyed a rebound season in ’23, hitting .237/.304/.424 (101 wRC+) with his typical brand of plus defense. With about $3.29MM remaining on his contract (plus a $2MM buyout on next year’s $12.5MM option), DeJong now seems affordable and productive enough to be a viable trade candidate — particularly if the Cardinals help out financially in any sense. DeJong’s bat has cooled after a torrid start, but his overall batting line is about league average, he’s shown some power and he’s played good defense.
Both Hicks and Stratton are natural trade candidates, too. Hicks is likely more appealing and costlier to acquire, given his youth and triple-digit heater. The 26-year-old is averaging better than 100 mph on his sinker and has a 1.88 ERA dating back to early May, punching out batters at a gaudy 31.4% of his hitters with an 8.5% walk rate and mammoth 66.7% grounder rate. Stratton, 33 next month, has a 4.38 ERA with better peripheral marks (27% strikeout rate, 7.1% walk rate, 3.01 FIP, 3.37 SIERA).
In any trade, St. Louis is eyeing near-MLB-ready pitching, Passan adds. That, again, is hardly a surprise and has long been speculated upon, given the team’s lack of rotation clarity beyond the current season. Both Montgomery and Flaherty are free agents. Adam Wainwright is retiring. Steven Matz and Matthew Liberatore have struggled.
Many of the names in question wouldn’t fetch a close-to-the-Majors arm in a straight-up swap, but someone like DeJong or Stratton could potentially be packaged with Flaherty or Hicks to improve the Cards’ return. Either Montgomery or certainly Carlson on his own could feasibly fetch immediate but unproven pitching help — Montgomery’s status as a rental notwithstanding. For instance, the Cards themselves traded away a big league-ready arm last summer when they shipped Johan Oviedo to the division-rival Pirates in order to acquire Stratton and Jose Quintana, who was then a rental player. Oviedo has struggled in July but notched a 4.06 ERA through his first 16 starts and is controllable through the 2027 season.