WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Tyler O’Neill, who was one of the National League’s top all-rounders in 2021, knows what lies ahead for him and is comfortable with it.
“No one wants to go to arbitration,” said the Cardinals outfielder, who in his first year of eligibility to arbitrate was unable to reach a 2022 settlement without filing an arbitration hearing. O’Neill, a new client of Scott Boras, submitted $4.15 million and the club countered with $3.4 million
“I can handle sitting in a room (or zoom) and having people say I’m not good enough at my job,” O’Neill said Wednesday before the Cardinals went 10-3 down in an exhibition competition the Houston Astros lost. “I’m a grown man. I don’t think I’ll take it too personally. Of course I don’t know yet.”
With a 99-day owner lockout of players, the offseason and inseason have taken on a different look. Salary arbitrations are usually settled in February. They’re going into April now.
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“It’s definitely an unorthodox scenario,” said the 26-year-old British native of Columbia. “Unfortunately, due to the lockout, we also have to deal with it in spring training and during the season. We also do not know when the hearings are scheduled to begin.”
Players have enough to do getting in shape with a condensed spring workout without outside influences.
“We’ll just have to treat it as a distraction,” O’Neill said. “We have hired the right people to do this work for us and I have complete and utmost confidence in my representation and my agency to get the work done. It’s an unfortunate scenario we’ve gotten ourselves into, but that’s how it is this time.”
The Cardinals outfield was one of the most diverse and talented in baseball last year. But none of these players were satisfied with their contract offer.
Harrison Bader, a Gold Glover like O’Neill (who has two), sought $4.8 million in arbitration, with the club filing a $4.2 million figure. And fast-rising rookie outfielder Dylan Carlson opted for a contract extension, likely at a lower price than the club had offered him, as pitcher Jack Flaherty had done on a couple of occasions. Carlson’s salary will be above the new $700,000 minimum, but maybe not by that much.
Speaking of his own disappointment, O’Neill didn’t pull any punches.
“I won’t lie,” he said. “I’m a little surprised. I really felt there was a lack of urgency on the other side this time, which is unfortunate.”
Cardinals are unable to settle midway the $715,000 difference in arbitration numbers. But O’Neill said he’s open to a multi-year deal.
“Absolutely. I would definitely be open to talks about extending my contract with St. Louis. I love playing here. I love the fans. I love the city. I love the energy out there,” he said. “I would (a extension) if everything worked out right.”
The arbitration hearing could be a pip. Aside from his two gold gloves in left field, O’Neill was ranked eighth in last year’s National League Most Valuable Player poll. He hit .286 with 34 homers and 80 batted runs plus 15 stolen bases, plus .912 OPS.
The readings were even better. The burly O’Neill landed in the 94th percentile among major leagues in average exit speed right off the bat. In the sprint he reached the 98th percentile.
The only other players who combined these skills at this level were Ronald Acuna Jr. and Fernando Tatis Jr., two of the game’s best young players.
The Cardinals, of course, will point to O’Neill’s 168 strikeouts last season and 321 in just 892 career at-bats. They will point out his injury history. He only played 138 games last season and was injured five times in four seasons.
O’Neill preferred to talk about the Cardinals’ attack in the 2021 postseason.
“Those 17 (victories) in a row were very special,” he said. “It’s something I will remember for a long time and hopefully the organization will remember it for a long time. It would be hard to beat a high school team 17 times in a row, let alone the major leagues.”
From a personal point of view, O’Neill said he wanted to lower his “puff” rate, ie his drop percentage.
“Be a little picky up there (at the plate),” he said. “How I maximize my racquet from the contact perspective. I know if I put the ball in play there will be damage out there. It’s just about being consistent. The ‘touch’ is a big one for me.”
After hitting a terrible .173 with a .261 on-base percentage in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, O’Neill went from suspect to star.
“I know my skills. I proved to myself and to the league that I can be successful in this league. I can do some damage and be a guy that the cardinals in the middle of the order can rely on,” he said. “I want to be that guy. I want to be a difference maker for this ball club.”
Third-place play between Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado seems an ideal match, and O’Neill hit .313 with 1,049 OPS in 35 games at No. 3 — many of which come late in the Cardinals’ season.
“I really feel like I’ve learned a lot from Paul and Nolan and I’ll just keep watching them,” O’Neill said.
But there is observation and learning. And then comes the application.
“I found a routine that worked for me,” he said. “I really understand how my body works on the defensive side of the ball and the offensive side of the ball – what works with my swing path. Everything has been translated. And all this just lets me play smoothly. To relax and be me.”
O’Neill just plays with confidence what he calls that “X-factor” – that sixth tool you can’t rate.
“I feel like I belong. And I feel like I should score in the middle of that order and be able to damage that ball club and help that ball club win ball games.
“I won’t stop until I max that out.”
His manager, Oliver Marmol, who will not participate in the Zoom arbitration, trusts what he sees.
“If you look at Tyler O’Neill 12, 18 months ago … where he is today with his routine, he’s at an elite level,” Marmol said. “He’s taken his game to a completely different level in terms of his overall preparation. We’ve seen a lot of growth at O’Neill.”
His next salary, whatever it is, will reflect that.