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Yankees Potential Trade Target: Tyler O’Neill

A down-ballot MVP candidate two years ago, could O’Neill return to form in the Bronx with free agency looming?

MLB: SEP 07 Cardinals at Braves Photo by Jeff Robinson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There is only one Juan Soto, and despite the heavy reports, it’s ultimately more likely than not that he won’t be donning pinstripes on Opening Day 2024. Should the Yankees fail in their pursuit of Soto — whether it’s because of the Padres’ simple preference of team’s prospects or New York’s hesitance to max out its offer — they will still have a significant need at his position.

Another National League ballclub that fell short in its contention attempt in 2023 also carries some players who catch your eye when it comes to hitting improvements. Like the Friars, they’re also in dire need of pitching. That team is the St. Louis Cardinals and one of the better fits for a trade with the Yankees would be the power-hitting outfielder, Tyler O’Neill.

We already wrote about Dylan Carlson and Brendan Donovan over here at Pinstripe Alley. Enclosed in the links are a couple of pieces you should really check out from Peter Brody.

While all three players have merits, it’s beyond argument that O’Neill has the best upside of the bunch, and while dealing exclusively for that can be a bit of a pitfall, it is not without a reasonable argument. A former third-round pick out of British Columbia, O’Neill burst onto the scene in 2021, after a limited role in each of his first two seasons and then putting together a poor showing in 2020.

2021 was his first full campaign in a 162-game season, and the right-handed hitter climbed to a top-10 finish in the National League MVP race. He also netted his second consecutive Gold Glove award, cementing a solid defensive reputation. O’Neill had a whopping 62 extra-base hits while batting .286/.352/.560 with a 148 OPS+ in 138 games. The Cardinals caught fire down the stretch to win 17 in a row, and they captured a Wild Card spot. O’Neill had a 1.041 OPS during that run while winning NL Player of the Month in September.

Since then, though, things have taken a turn for the worse. O’Neill hasn’t been able to repeat that performance, amidst back-to-back injury-riddled seasons in 2022 and 2023 under new skipper Oli Marmol. It is worth noting that even through that successful 2021 campaign, O’Neill carried a very high 31.7-percent strikeout rate, unsustainable BABIP (.366), and other concerning factors.

O’Neill actually has been able to improve his K-BB numbers. The strikeout rate dropped from 31.3 to 26.9 and more recently 25.2. The walk rate, meanwhile, improved from 7.1 percent to 9.9 and 10.5 in 2023. In the process of doing that, O’Neill’s ground-ball rate has gone way up from 34.6 percent to 43.5 and 42.4 percent, and the hard contact is down from 30.9 percent to 27.0 and 27.5 percent.

With only one more year of control left, a pitching need, and a healthy depth in their lineup, St. Louis is the most willing it has ever been to part with O’Neill. However, multiple years removed from his best campaign, O’Neill is unlikely to fetch an enticing return, particularly with the multitude of injuries he’s dealt with.

Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak is on the record saying that O’Neill would likely be the team’s fifth outfielder if the season were to start now, and that he’s on the market. The aforementioned Carlson, who the Cardinals are also listening on, would be the primary backup.

The Cardinals have signed Sonny Gray and a couple inning-eaters to fill out a staff that needs a lot of help, but their pitching depth is still severely lacking. From the Yankees’ side of things, there are plenty of names who would make sense to secure an intriguing name in O’Neill without taking on a lot of risk. If it doesn’t work out, he’ll hit free agency after 2024 anyway.

Even if O’Neill is unlikely to match his best-hitting numbers, his defensive work alone makes this a worthwhile attempt, particularly in an outfield market that’s not that rich. Soto should remain the primary target, but O’Neill isn’t an awful Plan B.