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O'Neill's injuries make for disappointing spring

Slugging outfielder's team-backed muscle-building program subject of criticism
MLB.com @JoeTrezz

JUPITER, Fla. -- Cardinals manager Mike Matheny read the list of names in a businesnesslike tone, one after another, each a promising prospect, but none of them much of a surprise. Good young players flood big league camp each and every spring, and each and every spring, most eventually need to be reassigned. The realities of roster construction just make it so.

But when Matheny came to Tyler O'Neill, his voice changed. Earnestly disappointed, Matheny explained that O'Neill had been optioned to Triple-A Memphis, how his strained hamstring wasn't worth pushing. The club's No. 4 prospect per MLB Pipeline, O'Neill entered camp with a chance to slug his way onto the Opening Day bench. Instead the Cardinals saw very little of him, as oblique and hamstring strains limited the bulky outfielder to 12 at-bats.

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JUPITER, Fla. -- Cardinals manager Mike Matheny read the list of names in a businesnesslike tone, one after another, each a promising prospect, but none of them much of a surprise. Good young players flood big league camp each and every spring, and each and every spring, most eventually need to be reassigned. The realities of roster construction just make it so.

But when Matheny came to Tyler O'Neill, his voice changed. Earnestly disappointed, Matheny explained that O'Neill had been optioned to Triple-A Memphis, how his strained hamstring wasn't worth pushing. The club's No. 4 prospect per MLB Pipeline, O'Neill entered camp with a chance to slug his way onto the Opening Day bench. Instead the Cardinals saw very little of him, as oblique and hamstring strains limited the bulky outfielder to 12 at-bats.

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O'Neill was one of nine players reassigned on Sunday.

"It's frustrating because he works hard to have the strength that he has," Matheny said. "He looks bound up until you see him play the game."

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Matheny shook his head not only for O'Neill's luck, but also for the perception he knew the 22-year-old would now need to fight going forward. Though he didn't do much to turn heads on the field in the spring, O'Neill did so often off the field -- not with his behavior, but with his appearance.

Video: Top Prospects: Tyler O'Neill, OF, Cardinals

O'Neill is the son of a Terry O'Neill, who earned the title "Mr. Canada," given to Canada's top bodybuilder, in 1975. The future Cardinals farmhand grew up in gyms, often lifting in facilities where his father's photos lined the walls. He began lifting at age 11 and started restricting his diet shortly after. Soon he learned to isolate specific muscle groups and in the process built a frame that stands out everywhere, but particularly on a baseball field.

"I have the mentality where I want to excel at everything I do," O'Neill said. "Getting in the gym and having a better body than everybody else was something I really wanted to strive for at an early age." 

O'Neill's official 5-foot-11, 210-pound listing doesn't accurately convey how atypical his body type is in baseball. Teammates have crowded around the weight room to watch him complete a heavy set of deadlifts. His biceps were a specific topic of conversation around the Cardinals' clubhouse during the first few weeks of camp.

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Club officials have allowed O'Neill to continue on a personal lifting program. They don't believe his physique necessarily makes him more injury prone, pointing to his flexibility, speed (which scouts rate as above-average) and injury history as evidence.

"He's fought his whole life to dispel the theory that he's too muscle-bound," Matheny said. "But you have to live with what people think, and right now this is what St. Louis thinks. I don't know if it's fair. We have guys with zero muscle mass at all who get the same old stuff."

Acquired from the Mariners last July for left-hander Marco Gonzalez, O'Neill didn't come with a track record of muscular injuries. He missed time in the Minors just once, after breaking his hand punching a wall.

"I'm not trying to body build," O'Neill said earlier this spring. "I'm not trying to have a toned-up body. I'm trying to get stronger so I can play baseball."

Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joetrezz.

St. Louis Cardinals, Tyler O'Neill