O'Neill back from Classic with sights set on starting in center
JUPITER, Fla. -- Upon being jokingly informed that moving to center field this season might allow him to win Gold Gloves at multiple outfield positions, Cardinals standout Tyler O’Neill offered up the kind of confident response that showed he needed no reminder of the possibilities ahead.
“That’s not something I haven’t thought about,” said O’Neill, the 2020 and ’21 NL Gold Glove winner in left field.
O’Neill emerged from the intensity and passion of the World Baseball Classic and pronounced himself fully ready for the start of the regular season -- even though the Cardinals still have 13 days until their March 30 opener at Busch Stadium. And after two games in center field and two as the designated hitter for Canada, O’Neill knows exactly where he wants to be when the Cardinals get to the opener against the Blue Jays.
“I’m not sure exactly what [the Cardinals] want to do, but I’m going to continue to play my game and get my reps in center,” O’Neill said of the prospects of being the team’s starter. “We’ll see what [manager] Oli [Marmol] and the rest of the staff want to do, but I’m willing and able and I want to be out there. It’s going to come down to what is going to help these guys win the most ballgames. If that’s me getting out there and getting those [center field] reps, then I’m willing and able to and I can be that guy.”
O’Neill, whose Cardinals routed the Marlins 16-2 on Friday, was certainly “that guy” for Canada in the WBC after going 8-for-13 with two doubles, four RBIs, five runs scored and five walks. Among WBC players who played at least four games in pool play, O’Neill’s .615 batting average ranked first overall and his 1.491 OPS was fifth.
“It speaks to what his offseason looked like,” said Marmol of O’Neill, who remained in St. Louis much of the offseason while working with the team’s training staff to try to better prepare his body following an injury-marred 2022. “I am highly, highly impressed with how he came in physically and with his swing, but more impressed with the mentality. I think we’re going to see a different player than last year.”
The Cardinals had 17 players compete in the WBC, and they are slowly starting to get reinforcements back with pool play having ended. Shortstop Tommy Edman is expected to return to the lineup this weekend after arriving back in camp Wednesday following a 20-hour travel day from Tokyo. Lefty reliever Génesis Cabrera (Dominican Republic) and O’Neill arrived back in camp on Friday and will be slowly reintegrated, Marmol said.
One of the players O’Neill is competing against for the starting center-field job, Lars Nootbaar, is still away from camp while helping lead Japan to the WBC semifinals in Miami. Dylan Carlson, another starting center-field candidate, started in right field against the Marlins on Friday, while WBC-returnee Oscar Mercado (Colombia) was in center.
O’Neill described the WBC experience as a “bittersweet” one for him. As proud as he was to represent Canada and win two games -- a major improvement over its 2017 WBC performance -- he was disappointed that the squad lost to Mexico and failed to advance out of pool play. O’Neill also reveled in being one of the team’s leaders, and he was able to impart his MLB wisdom to several of the country’s top young players.
“I felt I had to step up and be that guy in the middle of the order and come through in those clutch situations,” O’Neill said. “There was a lot on my shoulders. The tournament feels different being in an intense spot in the middle of March, and I was just trying to do my part.”
His part for the Cardinals could come in center field, a spot he played a little while coming up the St. Louis system after being traded by Seattle. O’Neill eventually shifted to left, where he thrived defensively. Now, he has his sights set on being an elite defender in center.
“I’m really enjoying it out there,” O’Neill said of center field. “I like the look and the way the ball comes off [bats]. I know I can cover the ground and I’m starting to really understand my surroundings. I’m really enjoying it and I’m looking forward to every opportunity I get.
“I feel like I’m pretty much ready to go,” he added. “To play those intense [WBC] games in March, it was great for me. I feel like I’m ready for big league ballgames.”