The Cardinals have been exploring trade scenarios involving outfielder Tyler O’Neill — president of baseball operations John Mozeliak acknowledged as much at this week’s Winter Meetings — and Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post Dispatch reports that the Royals and Mariners are two of the several teams who’ve spoken to the Cards about the 28-year-old O’Neill.
A two-time Gold Glove winner in left field, O’Neill had a monster 2021 season that netted him an eighth-place finish in National League MVP voting but has battled injuries throughout his career. He slashed .286/.352/.560 with 34 home runs. He walked at a below-average 7.1% clip and fanned at a lofty 31.3% rate, but it was an undeniably excellent campaign all around. The two seasons since have been decidedly less than that.
From 2022-23, O’Neill has appeared in just 168 games and totaled 649 plate appearances with a .229/.310/.397 slash. Along the way, he’s dealt with shoulder, hamstring, foot and back injuries. Staying on the field has been a problem throughout his big league tenure; since making his MLB debut back in 2018, O’Neill has been placed on the injured list on 12 different occasions, owing to a wide variety of ailments. He’s controlled for just one more year before becoming a free agent, and MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz projects O’Neill to earn a reasonable $5.5MM salary this coming season.
The Cardinals have been seeking bullpen help on the trade market, and it stands to reason that even one year of O’Neill could land them that. Goold notes that they’re also open to packaging him in a larger deal to acquire a front-end rotation upgrade, though such a deal would be far harder to orchestrate. Excellent as O’Neill was in 2021, that was two years ago, and he’s now a one-year bounceback rental. He wouldn’t be a prominent factor in any package for a high-end starter.
As for the two reported suitors, both make some degree of sense. The Mariners could use a right-handed bat to replace free agent Teoscar Hernandez and Eugenio Suarez, whom they traded to the Diamondbacks earlier in the offseason. Whether O’Neill fits the Mariners’ stated preference of adding more contact to the lineup, however, is an open question. He fanned at 25.2% clip last year — far lower than the 30%-plus marks posted by both Suarez and Hernandez. However, O’Neill whiffed in more than 31% of his plate appearances in his best season and has a career 30% mark.
That said, Seattle’s interest is only natural, considering the Mariners are the team that selected him in the third round of the 2013 draft. That predates president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto’s time with the team — and it was Dipoto who traded O’Neill to St. Louis in exchange for Marco Gonzales — but there are some longtime holdovers who surely still view O’Neill in a favorable light.
In reporting on the Mariners’ interest in Jorge Soler this morning, Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic suggested that the M’s might want to spread their remaining financial resources out among multiple targets. O’Neill would allow them to do that more than Soler, who’ll likely command a salary two to three times as large as O’Neill in free agency. Then again, it’s also possible the M’s could sign Soler to DH and acquire O’Neill to play left field in place of Jarred Kelenic, who was traded to the Braves earlier in the week. The Mariners’ payroll projection right now checks in under $120MM, and Dipoto has spoken on record about how payroll can increase over last year’s $140MM mark.
As for the Royals, they’re lacking in the way of any established big league outfielders. Royals outfielders combined for a lowly .228/.294/.393 batting line in 2023, with the resulting 84 wRC+ ranking 29th in the Majors. O’Neill fits the Royals’ longstanding preference for premium defensive players, and the upside of his 2021 season at the plate is the type of production that the budget-conscious Royals typically can’t afford to pursue in free agency.
At present, the Royals’ outfield mix consists of MJ Melendez, Drew Waters, Kyle Isbel, Edward Olivares and Nelson Velazquez. The latter of that quintet surely earned a full look in 2024 with a huge power showing following his acquisition from the Cubs at last year’s deadline, and Melendez has long been one of the organization’s top prospects. None from that bunch has had any sustained MLB success, however, and Melendez — also a catcher — grades out quite poorly from a defensive standpoint.
The Royals are known to be in the market for rotation help, but general manager J.J. Picollo also said earlier in the offseason that a bat who could hit somewhere from third to sixth in the middle of his order would be nice to add. A healthy O’Neill is absolutely that type of bat, and his projected salary fits comfortably within the $30MM+ that Picollo acknowledged he has to spend this winter.