A quicker O'Neill chasing center field job

February 21st, 2023

JUPITER, Fla. -- In the process of reworking his offseason workouts to try to avoid the hamstring injuries that marred his 2022 season, got his muscular, chiseled frame in good enough shape to launch himself into consideration for the Cardinals' starting center field job.

While it might seem counterintuitive to move a two-time Gold Glove Award winner from left field to center, O’Neill knows he is in a battle for a spot among several players, and he wants to make himself as valuable as possible to the club. Quicker in terms of his first step and possessing the straight-line speed that might give him an edge over and , O’Neill embraces the competition that will come in the fight for the position.

“I’d love to play center field, and I’m not trying to boot anybody away from that position, either, but it’s whatever they deem fit,” said O’Neill, who will play center field for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic next month. “I know they’re very analytically driven here, and I just want to be the best player I can be. I’ve worked really hard this offseason, increasing my first-step quickness and making sure my legs are under me. I believe I can play the position if that’s where they want me.”

Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and manager Oliver Marmol let it be known before Spring Training that the fight for outfield spots was wide open. Nootbaar, O’Neill and Carlson were the incumbents and the likely favorites, even though O’Neill and Carlson suffered through injury-ravaged, disappointing seasons in 2022. Attempting to elbow their way into the mix are the organization’s top prospect, Jordan Walker; promising young hitters and ; and reclamation project .

Experimenting with O’Neill in center field -- where he has played just 27 games in his MLB career -- adds another wrinkle to a competition that figures to be tight throughout Spring Training. When asked if anything could be read into O’Neill taking fly balls in center field during the first two days of official workouts, Marmol said bluntly: “It’s him competing for the center field job.”

“He came into camp wanting that [position],” Marmol said. “He came up through our Minor League system and actually through pro ball as a pretty good center fielder, so he's going to get a shot there. It's something he wants and he's going to compete for it.”

Coming off a breakout season in 2021 when he hit .286 with 34 home runs and 80 RBIs, O’Neill had big expectations awaiting him in '22. However, an arbitration loss, an early shoulder injury and two hamstring pulls led to several stops and starts. Ultimately, he mustered just 14 home runs and 58 RBIs in 96 games. In a somewhat fitting end to a forgettable season, O’Neill was rehabilitating his hamstring in the Arizona Fall League as the Cardinals were getting swept out of the National League Wild Card Series by the Phillies.

Between his injuries, O’Neill played 21 games in center field when Carlson slumped and was bothered by a wrist injury. Carlson got his chance in center field -- and played exceptionally well there for an extended stretch -- when Harrison Bader was slowed by plantar fasciitis, then traded to the Yankees in August. As for O’Neill, he said he is better suited for a switch to center now than he was in the middle of last season.

“I got a taste of it last year, and it was something that maybe I wasn’t conditioned for previously,” he said candidly. “There’s a lot of ground to cover, and I had to see it for my own eyes and know I’ve got to go get more balls.”

With a clean slate, O’Neill is hoping to show his worth to the Cardinals as a versatile fielder who checks the defensive boxes they are looking for in a center fielder. Over the past three seasons, only four Major Leaguers -- Aaron Judge, Julio Rodríguez, Cedric Mullins and Adolis García -- have played at least half their games in center and have had a 25-home run season. The muscular O’Neill would love to join that group before hitting salary arbitration a third time. Staying healthy -- especially at a physically demanding position like center field -- might be his biggest hurdle.

“My body feels really good, I’m mobile and I’ve got some conditioning under me -- more than in previous years -- and I got back into heavy lifting this year,” he said. “My body just feels like it’s in a good position.”